Back in the days of flip phones, 20-pound laptops, and pagers, Interstate Navigation - The Block Island Ferry ran a boat called the M/V Nelseco out of Fort Adams in Newport, Rhode Island. I was the guy who was sent to Newport to try and drum up business for the summer ferryboat run. The Nelseco became a vestige of the M/V Yankee, which for decades ran from Providence to Newport and then off to Old Harbor—it was a very long and colorful boat ride. The old Yankee had her salad days in the 60s, 70s and 80s; however, eventually the ridership diminished out of Providence. Subsequently, the Nelseco continued the run for many years until the company decided to simply run out of Fort Adams for one round trip per day; a decision dictated by supply and demand. It was a one hour and fifty-five minute trip from the fort to Old Harbor. Spending that much time on a boat to get to Block Island was hard for people to wrap their heads around in those days. Needless to say, it’s harder now.
In 2002, as the pace of the world and new technology was ramping up, this trip from Newport was considered a very long boat ride. I’d be tearing around the City of Newport on my bicycle hitting the B+Bs, inns and hotels and do my best explaining the drill on how to get to over to the fort and hop on the boat. I’d make it sound as easy as possible because I knew my way around town and could make it look easy. The people would sense my good intentions, but the first question people would invariably ask me was, “How long does the boat ride take?” My answer was an hour and fifty-five minutes, or “thereabouts.” I’d add the last part of my answer in a halting manner. It was a tough sell as people crunched the math and looked at me unenthusiastically with glazed-over eyes. Thwarted yet undaunted by blank stares, I’d tell the potential customer if they were so inclined that they could drive to Point Judith and hop aboard the fast ferry Athena and be on the island on the quick. The potential customer would do the math, and their eyes lit up with this suggestion that they’d just need to head across two bridges and turn south on Route 1. I’d give the people a brochure and I’d draw a little map and send them on their merry way to paradise alley. The whole conversation ended up being based on time, speed, and distance. We were entering a brave new world and there would be no turning back - ever.
In 2000, I was living on my sailboat in the summertime because it was logistically easier than commuting from Point Judith. One summer our Scotty, Mac, was my assistant. In the morning I’d make some coffee and put Mac
in my dinghy and we’d motor over to the fort to meet the Nelseco. Under the command of the late Captain Joe Welch, she would deadhead from Point Judith and get to the fort around 0830. Mac and I would queue up the passengers on the Alofsin Pier and after the crew tied up the ferry we’d board the passengers where they could buy their tickets on the boat. (It’s the same way it was done aboard the Quonset back in the day with the old portable ticket machine.) Things were simpler at Fort Adams in those days but change was in the offing. The ferry company had a simple sign that was affixed to the pier a few days before the run, and it would be taken down
on Labor Day. Moreover, there was a smaller sign at the entrance of the fort that I’d screw to a phone pole. It was a bare bones operation in those days; however, I could sense the operation on the cusp of the big changes in ferry transportation to Block Island from Newport. We had entered the digital age and people wanted not only their computers to be faster, but they wanted everything in their lives to be, faster. As a result of the rapid evolution
and acceleration of computer technology, which can easily be noted by Moore’s Law (google this), the fast-paced world we now live in forces us to stay connected to our iPhone and expect things to be done yesterday. The days of the flip phone, pager, and heavy laptop are gone. That ship has sailed. (In July 2012, the fast ferry M/V Islander began the run from Fall River and Newport.) Today, our world is wired in such a way that we all need to hustle in order to simply keep up with news cycles, work schedules, and vacation times. Vacation and hustling are contrary terms, but all we need to do is just book a vacation slot to do anything to see how we must hustle to book some time to go to a place and relax. Relaxation is a demanding job these days; however, we all need to find a place to stop the world for a minute and using high-speed ferryboat transportation has become part
of the deal.
If we look at things from an historical and technological point of view we can see a natural marriage and progression of technology and marine transportation. In a little over a century we’ve gone from sail, diesel, and jet propulsion to get our needs met regarding travel over water. The one constant that hovers over the design and engineering of commercial boats these days, is that of speed; which simply breaks down to the old adage that time is money. And, what drives this line of thinking is that people want and need to get from point A to point B on the quick while they are scoping their iPhone screens and occasionally being in the moment. Oh hell, I didn’t want to get all philosophical on you but you probably get my drift that it might actually be nice to power down a touch and smell the seaweed or look at the horizon.
The days of the Nelseco are gone now but I have great memories of that time and place stored in active files in my head. As I sail in and out of Newport Harbor these days I can see the Alofsin Pier at Fort Adams is a place bustling with marine activity. Moreover, these days we can see high-speed ferries coming into the bay from Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard carrying people from point A to point B and linking them to these great coastal places to visit and relax. Fast.
Forward we go!