At 5 a.m. on a chilly November morning, Bridget Tobin is exuberant. “First cold day of the season! Wasn’t the drive down in the snow beautiful?” Even her clothes — bright lime green jacket, red cashmere socks and patent leather clogs — are cheerful.
Bridget is manager of the Steamship Authority Oak Bluffs terminal and this morning’s shift manager in Vineyard Haven. This is her first week back at the main port terminal since late May (she spends the high season running the Oak Bluffs port). And as she tells it: “Yesterday was a perfect day. Not too busy. Not too slow. Got everyone off. No emergencies. We’ll have to see about today.”
As shift manager, her main responsibility is to facilitate the process of getting trucks, cars and people safely on and off the Island. And if that sounds simple, a closer look reveals otherwise.
Bridget heads into her office to look at the number of cars and trucks scheduled to be on the 6 a.m. ferry. The boat is nearly full and she has six semis and two “straights,” trucks that are bigger than a pickup but smaller than a semi, up to 30 feet. “We’re in pretty good shape, but I’m going to lock this boat so that no one else — agent or passenger — can make a reservation to get on,” she says.
A dock worker calls from the traffic booth to tell her that one car for the 6 a.m. is special assistance. “That means that they need to go in the row near the elevator on the boat,” she explains. Minutes later, Bertha Blake from the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital calls to say they need to get two ambulances off on the 8:15 boat this morning. Family related to one of the ambulance runs also needs to also get off with a car. Bridget looks at the 8:15 reservation roster. Completely booked, she tells Bertha. Is it critical that both get off at 8:15 or can one wait until 9:30? One can wait, the answer comes back. “Bertha and I have a great relationship,” Bridget says. “We both understand how many things are at play.”
She looks out her office window, which has a stunning view of the ferry, harbor, and most important for Bridget, a clear sight line to the truck and car staging area. She calls the traffic booth to tell them that they are going to need to get as many standbys on the 6 and 7 a.m. boats as possible to make some space on the 8:15. She shakes her head. “I still don’t know how I’m going to get an ambulance on the 8:15, but we will. One ambulance can mean five cars with reservations get bumped.” She looks out her window again. She sees the Cottle’s truck and knows that a Cronig’s truck is also scheduled to go off. “Maybe Cronig’s or Cottle’s will be my heroes and can move to another boat so we can fit an ambulance on.”
Just then Angela Del Torto, a tall dock worker fashionably dressed for the wintery weather, pokes her head into Bridget’s office. “Mrs. T., I’ve got a woman out here crying at the booth. She says her daughter just got rushed to the hospital at college and she needs to get off to go see her.” Bridget nods and says, “Tell her to get in line and we’ll do everything we can to get her off.”
In a matter of 15 minutes, the morning has become a complex puzzle of squeezing sizes, shapes and needs onto a ferry. But for Bridget, who has seen nearly 40 years of Labor Days, Memorial Days, managed several Presidential visits and the Secret Service, negotiated Ferris wheels and other bulky and wildly shaped Agricultural Fair rides along with managing boats and cars around crippling hurricanes and high winds, this is just another day. Today’s complications appear to invigorate her.
Her phone rings again. She picks up. “Steamship.” This time it is one of her dock workers calling in sick. She looks at the clock. It’s 5:20 a.m. She makes a call. “Hi, Mike. It’s Bridget. I know it’s your day off, but one of the guys is sick.” She reflects. “If it looked like it was going to be a quiet morning, I wouldn’t have bothered calling someone else in, but it’s going to be a busy day.”
At 5:25 a.m., Bridget pushes back from her desk and declares: “It’s a double coater day.” She dons two blue jackets with the letters SSA on the back, along with a hat, fingerless gloves (“I need my finger tips to tear tickets”), and a scarf. At five feet flat, the jackets hang down just above her knees, making her look a bit like a child whose mother has overdressed her in her big brother’s clothes for a sledding excursion. She puts on her second coat and pulls up her sleeve to show off a charm bracelet on her left wrist. It has the faces of all the saints on it. “It’s my prayer bracelet. Like a rosary or a mala. When I see people who are suffering, I look at the bracelet and think of them, hoping all goes well.”
Walking out of the ticket office, she pushes the handicapped button to make sure the automatic doors are working. She skips down the stairs, spies a patch of ice and asks another dockworker to put salt on it. Then she checks in with Angela to see if the gangway is too slippery for passengers. They decide to not use it.
As soon as the first boat has let all its passengers off, Bridget boards the Martha’s Vineyard to talk to Johnny Soares, one of the bosuns in charge of loading vehicles onto the freight deck. “There is an art to loading a boat. It really is a team effort,” she says. “And takes a real understanding of what fits where. Some are better at it than others. Johnny is excellent.” Bridget explains the morning plan: they need to fit as many cars on the 6 and 7 a.m. trips to make room for an ambulance on the 8:15. Johnny rubs his hands together and nods. Bridget thanks him and yells out as she walks away: “Positive thinking, Johnny! Positive thinking!”
At 5:35 a.m., cars and trucks start to roll onto the boat. Watching Bridget greet walk-on passengers, take tickets, gab with truck drivers, help people with their luggage, is like watching a great conductor lead an orchestra. As a conductor knows the tempo and tone for each instrument, she relates to each person.
“Well, here’s my favorite farmer!”
“Going shopping today? Fill that car right up!”
“How is Peter? I’ve been thinking about him. Please let him know he’s in my prayers.”
“Did you sell your house?”
“Aha. You’re off!” she sings. “All your bags are packed and you’re ready to go . . . see you in the spring!”
When all the people and cars are on (including the mother with a child in the hospital), Bridget calls the captain. “One hundred and three adults and one child. You’re clear.”
As the boat moves out of the slip, Bridget heads back to her office to work on the 8:15 boat puzzle: how to fit an ambulance on an already too-full boat. As she enters the ticket office, the noise of about 20 excited children and their teachers and parents greet her. “A zoo trip,” she guesses. And she is right. She greets the crowd with a large and loud, “Good morning!” And gets one right back. She laughs, “I remember Matt and I taking our kids on those zoo trips.”
Matt is Bridget’s husband, Matt Tobin. “We met on the phone. I was working at the reservation bureau in Woods Hole at the time and I helped him make a reservation. Then I met him in person at the fair. He asked me out on a date. We went to the Sea View and that was it. Thirty-three years! Hard to believe. As parents, we were really lucky because he owned his own business (Tea Lane Nursery). So if I had to work the early shift here, he could take the kids to school. Or if I was going to work at night, he could pick them up. We just were able to work it out. I’m so proud of my kids. They both took after their dad. My son Joseph just got married and is the best stone mason. And Emma is out in San Francisco doing landscape design. They are amazing people. Speaking of amazing people, I’ve got to call the drivers for Cronig’s and Cottle’s. They always help me on days like this.”
Cronig’s and Cottle’s agree to wait 15 minutes and get on the next freight boat. Now Bridget has almost enough space for the ambulance and all the reserved vehicles for the 8:15. Just as her solution falls into place, she looks up, sees the next ferry coming in and says: “Now I go into sunglass mode.” She pops on a pair of Ray Bans (one arm held on with a paper clip) and heads back outside to unload and load the next boat. Again Bridget checks in with the bosun. “I’ve got two straights, two tow behinds, an ambulance and a full boat of cars. How would you like it?” As the sun rises over East Chop and the wind picks up, whipping across the water and parking lot, they load the boat in a matter of minutes. “People have buses and jobs to get to.”
Bridget runs back inside for a quick sip of coffee and to warm her fingers. She notices the stadium lights in the staging area are still on. She yells across the lot, “Hey Aaron [a dock worker], will you turn the lights off? Thanks!” She continues, “I just hate to waste electricity.”
Then it is time for the 8:15. Bridget works with Johnny, getting the ambulance and all reserved passengers on. She laughs with delight. “It’s a miracle.”
The morning continues at a rapid-fire pace. Garbage trucks, medical waste trucks, a hazmat truck, food trucks, a truck with a flat tire, another ambulance, UPS and Federal Express trucks and two more “medicals.” Standby drivers get off along with the reservations and foot traffic. The energy in the parking lot becomes even more charged when the police show up to stake out the boats. Apparently, they don’t want someone who has robbed something to leave the Island. By 10 a.m., the SSA has already ferried more than 1,000 cars, trucks and people off Island. “Now it will start to settle down,” Bridget says. “During the week, the early mornings are busiest.” Her prediction proves correct. By the time the noon boat rolls in, there are no standbys and there is space on the ferry.
Bridget praises her team, “This is not a one-man show. I’m only as good as my staff.”
Returning to her office she spies a necklace on the ground. She picks it up, “This is beautiful. This means something to somebody.” When she gets inside, she calls the Island Home and asked the captain to make an announcement that a necklace has been found. A few minutes later, Bridget’s phone rings. It’s the necklace owner. She is gushingly grateful. Her husband had it made for her. Bridget takes down her information and tells the woman they’ll mail it out today. When she hangs up, she smiles. “Now that always feels good. Being able to help somebody.” She points to the clock in her office, which has the saying, “The crab is in” hanging from it. “I don’t know who put that up. That is not my motto. Mine is kindness. We are here to help people.”
Bridget talks about how she sees people at their best — leaving for a honeymoon, to meet new grandchildren, to play in the playoffs or go on vacation — and their worst — heading off for surgery, cancer treatment, to a funeral or rehab. “I know so many intimate details about people’s lives. I keep my mouth shut. It’s an honor and a huge responsibility to protect people’s privacy. Especially if things are not going well,” she says.
At 1 p.m., Bridget’s shift is done, but she continues working, meeting with the SSA maintenance crew and engineers to assess how to shore up the Oak Bluffs terminal dock for the winter months and get it ready for next year. At around 2 p.m., the police find who they were looking for.
At 3 p.m., Bridget heads to her home in Chilmark, which is nestled deep in the woods surrounded by her husband’s nursery greenhouse, trailer and landscape equipment. The house is filled with mementos and photographs of family, friends and paintings by her late grandfather who helped raise Bridget.
When she was in first grade, her mom left her alcoholic father in Detroit and took her five living children (she lost one child at six months to pneumonia) across the country to be near her father, a legendary Falmouth character and artist named Capt. Joe Miron. Bridget describes her childhood. “We didn’t have much and the house wasn’t always warm in the winter, but my mom’s love and care for us made up for it. She was a powerful woman, helped so many people. She passed over eight years ago.”
Bridget’s mother was a school teacher. She grew up playing with her siblings, babysitting for other school teachers’ kids and working at her grandfather’s establishment, The Casino By the Sea, which housed a hotel, restaurant and bar, barber shop, beauty parlor, movie theatre and also had a variety show. When she was 18, she got a job at the SSA to earn money to go to college and never left. She laughs, “So I’ve really only had three jobs in my life!”
With retirement on the horizon, Bridget is looking forward to a different pace. “I haven’t been able to take a vacation from May to October since I was 18. I can’t wait to travel! I can’t wait to go to the beach in the summer! I want to walk all those land bank trails. And I really want to help children. There is just so much to see and do.”
She looks up at a photo of her late niece Juliette Burkett who lived with her for nine years. “She was my brother’s daughter. She was like a sister to Emma. A third child to me.” Two years ago, Juliette died in a car accident while driving back to Washington for her senior year of college. “Although she didn’t live long, she lived her life — every day — to the fullest. Life is precious, you know. You’ve got to appreciate all of it. I am so lucky. I won the lottery. I live here. I love my work, my family, this community. That’s one thing my mother taught me: everyone, everything matters.”