An Old Ferry Sails to New York; Schamonchi Reborn as Party Boat

By James Kinsella
Gazette Senior Writer

The old ferry Schamonchi has sailed off into the sunset - literally.

The unwanted remnant of Steamship Authority ferry service between New Bedford and Martha's Vineyard left its Fairhaven dock around 7 p.m. last Wednesday and steamed west for New York city. Fourteen hours later, the vessel arrived in Queens, three to four hours faster than expected.

On board the 130-foot steel-hulled vessel was a skeleton crew that included Jewan Singh, operations manager of Caribbean Shipping & Marine Services of Flushing, N.Y.

Photo

Caribbean plans to refurbish the vessel, which can carry up to 650 passengers, and use it as a party boat in the New York city area. The ship, which will retain its name, may began its new service in September.

Last month, Caribbean bought the Schamonchi for $105,000 from the SSA. The boat line had hoped to obtain at least $625,000 for the vessel, bought as part of a $1.75 million package in 2001.

But the bids for the Schamonchi, which was built in Maine in 1978, came in far lower than expected. Only two bids were received: $26,000 from one bidder, and $77,000 from Caribbean.

SSA governors then gave boat line management a green light to sell the vessel for at least $100,000. Caribbean bought the ferry for $105,000, with $5,000 going to a marine broker for the deal.

The vessel, which last operated as a ferry in 2003, had sat at the SSA maintenance dock in Fairhaven for almost two years.

Photo

The boat line meanwhile had licensed New Bedford Traditional Ferry Inc., a sister company to New England Fast Ferry, to operate a conventional ferry on the Vineyard-New Bedford route. Rather than the Schamonchi, the New Bedford company chose to use its own ferry, a former whale watching vessel named the Portuguese Princess, on the route.

That left the SSA holding onto the Schamonchi, which generated operating losses of about $800,000 per year in the three years that it operated the ferry. Last year, after unsuccessfully casting about for uses for the passenger-only vessel, the boat line board decided to sell it.

But where many observers would see a vessel with rust spots sitting forlornly at a dock, Mr. Singh found a mechanically sound vessel in need of some cosmetic work.

"The steel was unbelievably good," he said earlier last month about his decision to buy the vessel. "These engines are doing very well. This is a very nice boat."

Photo

One member of the crew that brought the vessel to New York was Kevin McNeil, who was present at the vessel's creation in East Boothbay, Me., and who worked on the Schamonchi for most of the ensuing years.

Back in 1978, Mr. McNeil was working for the Thames Shipyard in Connecticut. The Schamonchi, he said, actually was a collaborative effort between the Thames yard and the Edward T. Gamage yard in Maine. Mr. McNeil would drive equipment, much of it World War II surplus, from the Thames yard to East Boothbay, where it would be installed in the Schamonchi. "It made it more interesting," he said.

Mr. McNeil said the shipyard workers laid the keel of the Schamonchi on Jan. 2, 1978. He helped deliver the vessel Schamonchi to New Bedford on that year's Fourth of July weekend.

He stayed with the vessel, rising to captain and working for its operators, the Thompson family, who ran the vessel seasonally between New Bedford and the Vineyard. In the winters, he would take the vessel down to Tampa, Fla., to serve the seasonal market there.

The Schamonchi, he said, was not a run-of-the-mill vessel.

Photo

"There were a lot of things that didn't go right," Mr. McNeil said. "There were a lot of things that did."

He said the ferry handled very well at sea for a vessel of its size.

"We've been in a hurricane off Hatteras," he said. "The workmanship was unbelievable. I felt confidence - I knew what was under me."

The vessel's problems, Mr. McNeil said, were more political than economic. Docking at the Vineyard often was up in the air until just before a season started.

In 2001, the SSA moved to acquire the Schamonchi, its docking rights and other assets, both to secure a Vineyard-New Bedford route of its own and to keep out Hy-Line, a private ferry company also interested in the route. Mr. McNeil again stayed on with the vessel, going to work for the boat line.

Photo

These days, Mr. McNeil works as a ticket agent in Hyannis for the SSA. But last month, he returned to his beloved old Schamonchi, first to get the ship's engines running again and then, last week, to pilot the vessel out of Fairhaven on its way to New York.

Speaking of Mr. Singh, he said, "I'm glad he's doing something with it."