Island Commuters: The Daily Trek Across the Water

There are plenty of people living on-Island and off who regularly travel across Vineyard Sound for their work. They each have their own reasons – personal and professional – for making the lengthy commute.

Cindy McIntosh, who works at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, is fresh off the ferry that takes her from Falmouth to Oak Bluffs harbor each work day.
David Welch

Cindy McIntosh embraces her life as an Island commuter. Most mornings you can see her shortly after dawn collecting her newspaper in front of her house in Falmouth, hopping on her bicycle, and pedaling a couple of miles down to the harbor to catch a 7:15 ferry to Oak Bluffs. From there, she walks the mile and a half to Martha’s Vineyard Hospital on roads with no sidewalks and little shoulder, and assumes the role of executive assistant to the president. It’s a job and a way of life she wouldn’t trade for anything, and she’s not alone.

“I just love it,” Cindy says, sitting at a picnic table outside the hospital during a recent lunch break. “I think I’ve got a good thing here. It makes for a little bit of a longer day, but I don’t know what the trade-off is.”

Each weekday, Cindy numbers among the civil servants, entrepreneurs, educators, trades people, and others who travel from the mainland to the Vineyard, or from the Vineyard to the mainland, to earn their keep.

The life of an Island commuter is one of tight schedules, weather watching, and relying on the kindness of friends. It’s not a life for the impatient, the disorganized, or those easily prone to seasickness.

A state of mind

Some commuters intended this arrangement; others sort of fell into it, perhaps because they married an Island native – or divorced one. Some found great jobs on the Vineyard but couldn’t afford Island living, while others were in plum jobs they didn’t want to give up when their personal lives led them across the Sound.

But while their life circumstances may vary, those who traverse the water to pursue their professions share a great deal in common, like managing the logistics of travel. Catching the Steamship Authority shuttle buses, contending with fog and wind, and having to make several connections if you’re heading far from the Island can prove beyond challenging – especially during high season.

For Michael Marcus, a West Tisbury entrepreneur and owner of a start-up energy-storage technology company in Newton, it’s all a matter of maintaining the right frame of mind. While Michael primarily works from his home, a day or two a week he flies to Boston on Cape Air, then catches a cab to Newton. He also often flies throughout the country on business.

“When I get to the airport, if there are flight delays or even if the flights get canceled that night, if that’s the kind of thing that is going to aggravate you to the point of misery, that’s not going to work for you,” he says. “If you can slough it off to Island life and say that’s the way it is, then you’ll get by just fine.”

In addition to having the right mind-set, Michael knows who’s who among Cape Air staff members, which can be helpful when he is trying to find room on a flight at the last minute.

“Ideally, I want to be home every night, which is why I go back and forth,” says the father of three small children. “You learn all the ins and outs – all the ways to make the process less painful.”

Chris Welch makes his commute from Oak Bluffs to Bourne as painless as possible by keeping company trucks at both ends of his trip. The Bobcat of Boston salesman parks a truck in a leased spot in the lot behind the building that used to be Bowl & Board in Vineyard Haven, jumps on an early Steamship Authority ferry to Woods Hole, then hops into his company truck there in a permitted spot for the ride to the shop on General MacArthur Boulevard in Bourne.

“I’m not stuck up on Palmer Avenue [in Falmouth] where I have to jump on a bus and they shuttle you,” he says.

Chris has been making the same commute since 1991. He grew up in South Yarmouth and married Island native Amy Billings, who owns Cottage City Home Appliance and Outdoor Power Equipment in Oak Bluffs with her brother. She wanted to stay on-Island and maintain the family business; Chris didn’t want to give up his job in Bourne.

“There are no heavy equipment sales jobs on the Island,” he says. “It’s limited. I could get some type of job on the Island but not necessarily doing what I want to do.”

During nineteen years of commuting on the Steamship, he’s been stranded only about a half-dozen times, he says. And then there was the morning when the 7:15 ferry he was on wandered around for three hours, lost in fog.

Riding the boat has allowed him to get to know people from all walks of life, including those he typically wouldn’t hang out with. “I’ve made a lot of friends commuting on that boat, twenty or thirty friends – doctors, lawyers, you’re all thrown together – people you wouldn’t necessarily travel in the same social circles with.”

For a while, until their lives led them in different directions and off the ferry, Chris and some of his boat mates enjoyed regular Friday evening suppers together that they would tote onboard from Peking Palace in Falmouth. “The captain would block off part of the boat and we would have a good time,” he says.

Like a family

Kenny Long, another Steamship traveler, is the first to admit that a good bit of his social life centers around the other commuters on the 7 a.m. to Vineyard Haven. And that’s a good thing considering that his long day traveling from home in Mashpee to work on-Island installing security systems leaves little time for much fun at night.

“The commute cuts into your social life,” he says. “You can’t go out on school nights and get up for this.”

On this particular morning, like most other weekday mornings, he is seated at a table near the lunch counter on the Martha’s Vineyard, his USA Today lying in front of him, pencil for the crossword puzzle at the ready. Across from him, Cheryl Palmer of East Falmouth, his usual seatmate, plays Mafia Wars on Facebook on her electronic notebook. She’s headed to work at Karpet Kare in Vineyard Haven.

“We always sit here,” he says. “There’s the UPS guy and over there – those are the Griggs & Browne guys.”

Kenny is fiddling with his smart phone, retrieving information for a paramedic friend seated nearby who is considering becoming an electrician like Kenny because the stress of his current job is too much. Kenny gives him the name of a place to learn the trade.

Until recently, Kenny worked for Martha’s Vineyard Electricians, but in January about 75 percent of the staff was laid off, including him, he says. He was determined to find another job on-Island, where he can earn five dollars more an hour than on Cape Cod, he says. Not long after being laid off, he landed his position as a system technician at Electronic Security Systems in Vineyard Haven.

Most mornings, Kenny is out of his house by 5:45 a.m. and back home nearly eleven hours later. It’s a long day, but his boss pays for his parking in Falmouth and he has an easy two-minute walk from the ferry to the office in Vineyard Haven.

“It would definitely be easier to work on the Cape, but then I’d [have to] have two jobs,” he says. Cheryl looks up from her mini computer screen to agree. The flooring business she works for is family run and doesn’t pay on commission, as similar businesses on the Cape do, she says.

“I know how much my paycheck is every week,” she says. “I can’t leave; they pay me too good.”

People who commute via the same ferry seem to understand the value of knowing their regular traveling companions, who sometimes provide a much-needed car ride to or from the dock, or will think to call with the news that a particular boat is late or not running.

“The people on the boat have become very special to me,” Cindy McIntosh says of the regulars who take the 7:15 Quick-water, operated by Patriot Party Boats. “Some of them I see outside of work, but some of them I have a boat relationship with – that’s the only time I see them. But I know I can turn to them if I need anything.”

One regular recently helped her frame a new shed, and before that he helped her move. “They’re people I wouldn’t know if I hadn’t been riding the boat,” says Cindy, who has been taking the Patriot since 2003, when she moved to Falmouth from Edgartown after her divorce.

“The Patriot is kind of like a family,” agrees Michael Kelsey, a builder, qigong teacher, and former longtime Island resident who now rides the Patriot from Falmouth four days a week. “Everybody knows everybody.”

But all that closeness – the Quickwater is forty-eight feet long and has a capacity of forty passengers – can make you feel closed in at times.

“I don’t want to talk too much about it, but there are Peyton Place sorts of things that go on on the boat,” says Kathy Flynn of East Falmouth, who’s been a technology integration specialist at the Oak Bluffs School for thirteen years. “Everybody knows something about everybody on the Patriot Boat. There are so many stories under the stories.”

But the talk, she says, isn’t mean-spirited. “Sometimes it’s caring, but it’s not idle, mean gossip,” she says. “It’s just like the Island – you live in a small community and everyone knows what’s going on.”

Life in different worlds

Commuting on or off the Island means living in two worlds, as well as existing in the sometimes netherworld of travel. For some, this means remaining a bit anonymous and disconnected from the communities in which they live, since they are not home very much.

Richard Paradise, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society and an Island expat, understands this. In 2006, he and his wife, Brenda Horrigan, decided to sell their Vineyard Haven home and move to Falmouth, where their son, Cullen, had been attending Falmouth Academy. After watching Cullen maintain a 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule commuting his first year – there are about twenty Island students usually clustered together each day on the Steamship ferry doing homework and socializing – Richard and Brenda decided to make life easier for him and move across Vineyard Sound. But a day hasn’t gone by when Richard hasn’t missed the Island or felt more connected to it than to Falmouth.

“I never felt like I was in reality living in Falmouth,” says Richard, who for three years commuted nearly six days a week on the Steamship for his film society volunteer work and his former job as marketing and sales director for Plum TV (he does freelance media sales now from home). “I still felt like I was living on the Vineyard....I always felt and still to this day feel like a part of that community.”

Cullen eventually left Falmouth Academy for the extensive art curriculum at Falmouth High School. He graduates next spring, and Richard is thinking about shucking that ferry-and-shuttle-bus trek and moving back to his beloved Martha’s Vineyard.

For those who like to keep a low profile, like Shirley Fauteux, life in different worlds proves ideal. The Island native now calls Cape Cod home but lived most of her life in Vineyard Haven, where she raised two kids and operated All Island Taxi for a decade. She left the Island for a few years, then came back to take her current job as the Oak Bluffs health inspector. In 2004, she sold her house here and built another in East Falmouth.

“The nicest thing is I can go out to eat here and not see anyone I know,” she says, seated in her airy kitchen while her hyperactive poodle, Harriet, scurries around her legs chasing a ball. “You can just go and not drive in circles and not see the same people. There [on-Island], you get up in the morning and you don’t have too many choices about where you can go.”

Sue Driscoll of Vineyard Haven doesn’t see Island living quite the same way. She feels the connection Richard does, which explains why she’s been making the commute to North Falmouth, where she’s been principal of the North Falmouth Elementary School for eight years. Sure there are schools on the Island where she could work, and her job, with its evening student concerts and plays, means she sometimes catches the 8:30 p.m. Steamship ferry home, but she doesn’t want to give up any part of what she has now.

“The commuting takes a lot of my time, but I love my work,” she says. “And I love my home.”

Chris Welch echoes her thoughts. “Sometimes it gets a little old,” he says of commuting. “But it’s the price you pay for where you want to live. It’s the price you pay if you want to live in paradise. It could be worse. I know people who live on the Cape and commute to Boston and sit in traffic every day. I’d much rather take a forty-five-minute boat ride with a cup of coffee and the newspaper.”