Island Home Makes Her Debut In Commissioning at Vineyard Haven Wharf

By MIKE SECCOMBE

Among the many speeches given at the commissioning of the new ferry Island Home last Saturday, Boyd (Butch) King's was both the briefest and most touching.

Mr. King, chief executive officer of VT Halter Marine, the Mississippi company that built the boat, recalled the phone call he got from the Steamship Authority general manager Wayne Lamson and director of engineering Carl Walker after Hurricane Katrina devastated his construction yard and the lives of many of his workers.

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"The first call I got from Carl and Wayne after Katrina wasn't ‘when are you going to give me my ship,' it was ‘what can we do for you and your people.'"

"We then understood the heart of New England and that you cared about us," he said. "And we hope that we have given you a vessel that you can be proud of."

Through the adversity of the August 2005 hurricane and its aftermath, Mr. King said he and his people had bonded with his Massachusetts clients as with no others before. He used the word "family," and passed on "heartfelt gratitude from the folks down in Mississippi."

And he reminded the hundreds of Islanders gathered for the commissioning what the ceremony meant.

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"The launch," he said, "is when a ship gets her soul; the commissioning is when she comes to life."

By the time Mr. King spoke, well down the order, the Island Home officially had been alive for 10 minutes or so - notwithstanding the fact that she'd already sailed up from the Gulf of Mexico and spent a number of days doing practice runs to and from the Vineyard.

She'd come in to dock to the strains of the Skye Boat Song, played by a lone piper, L. Anthony Peak of Vineyard Haven. She'd been welcomed by the clear, light, yesteryear tenor of Benjamin Lambert Hall, with a song that sounded like something out of a 1920s music hall: Dear Island Home.

She'd been blessed by the Rev. Alden Besse of Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven, in an invocation of a suitably maritime flavor. She had heard the welcoming remarks of the chairman of the Steamship Authority, David Oliveira of New Bedford, which included a longer list of thank-yous than an acceptance speech at the Oscars, including everyone down to the local ratepayers.

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"Today," Mr. Oliveira said, "we commission a new vessel that, I dare say as the youngest member of the board, will outlast us all."

At least, that was if she enjoyed the longevity of the boat she replaced, the Islander, which served nearly 57 years.

He acknowledged the feelings of those who felt the old boat represented "days of yore when the Island was a quieter, simpler place with a quieter, simpler pace.

"But there does come a time when the rust, the vinyl seats and the inefficient engines need to be replaced."

And then he read the commissioning orders:

"I hereby order the Island Home be commissioned and placed in service for the purpose of providing transportation of persons and the necessaries of life for the Island of Martha's Vineyard."

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If that was the moment she officially came to life, the vessel showed no signs of it.

It was not until some minutes later, after the Star Spangled Banner had been sung and after Mr. Lamson ordered her senior captain, Sean O'Connor to "set the watch," that she suddenly came to, with an immense blast of her horn that startled the crowd to cheers and laughter.

A couple of reasonably pro forma speeches followed by local politicians. Rep. Eric T. Turkington of Falmouth resorted to the newly-minted cliche about the Island Home looking like the Islander on steroids. Cong. William Delahunt of Quincy talked about the people of the sea, a reference not just to Vineyarders, but to a wider group of constituents including those on the Cape, too.

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The last to speak was the surprise guest, whose name did not appear on the official program: Carly Simon. She joked that she had been invited down to smash a bottle of champagne on the hull of the new boat, but had drunk the champagne and left the bottle in the car.

Instead she sang, and later cut a ribbon spanning the massive freight deck doors, to allow hundreds of curious Islanders aboard for their first look around the Island Home.

They swarmed aboard to gawk at the spaciousness of the freight deck, test the comfort of the seating, appreciate the decor and above all, judging by the long lines leading to the snack bar, sample the food.

It was a happy scene; people were generally impressed.

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But Island people don't just ride the ferries, they have a relationship with them. They get all anthropomorphic about them. And, in those terms, what happened on Saturday was an introduction and a pretty successful first date.

No doubt she was aesthetically pleasing, this new girl. Superficially exciting.

But people were still reserving judgment. They kept saying so, even as they enthused about the new boat. They were waiting to see how she would perform when things got tough. That's the test of a relationship.

That's why they loved the Islander. For 57 years, she was there, for better or for worse.

They'd only met the Island Home for one, unseasonably pleasant day. It will take a lot more than that before attraction turns to love.