Ride Along: Water Taxi

Tue, 12/03/2013 - 10:30am

There are so many boats in the Great Salt Pond this July Fourth weekend that from Corn Neck Road, the spaces between them look more like canals than open water. Voices and music rise up from this Great Salt City and drift over to land, barely decipherable snatches of songs and conversation, like the sounds of a party in a neighbor’s yard.

I was drawn to the action out there, and so I asked Ted Merritt if I could ride along with him for a while aboard the Oldport Marine water taxi. Ted was on duty throughout the three-day weekend from breakfast until suppertime, ferrying passengers between boats and dry land.

While the rest of the nation relaxes, Block Island residents, even the retirees like Merritt, a school superintendent in his prior life, go to work housing, feeding, transporting and entertaining the tourists. Out on the pond, Merritt is no longer the retired executive, he is “Maverick,” his dispatch handle over the two-way radio that sends him to calls. The name seems perfect for Merritt, a tall, weathered man with easy movement and laughter in his eyes.

My husband reminds me that just a couple of years ago, John McCain was Maverick, but though Merritt does have some ties to Arizona, he does not remind me of McCain at all.

All in a Name
It’s clear that piloting the taxi is not a chore for Merritt. In fact, he seems more at home out there than he does on land. He spends a lot of his dry-land time focused on the Salt Pond as well. Besides working for the taxi service, he is on the board of directors of the Block Island Marine Institute, a non-profit maritime and marine science education organization.

When I arrive at the Boat Basin in early morning, it is quiet. Merritt says it hasn’t been busy, that people were coming off their boats in their own launches. They use the taxis more, he says, when the weather’s not good or the wind has kicked up, especially if they’re going out to dinner dressed up later in the day. That said, his radio crackles, and a call comes in for a pick up. He stands up, starts the motor and we’re off.

The blue launch we are riding in has been borrowed from the Newport branch of the business. Normally, Oldport runs two boats on the pond; this weekend there are three to accommodate the extra business the holiday usually brings. We pass boats named Water Torture, Many Happy Returns, Floating Interest, Hot Shot and Lazy Daze. I think about how a boat name says something about its owners, and the fact that few people name their cars, but almost all boat owners name their vessels.

Dog Days
While we motor out to the boat named Sunkist, another call comes in and we detour to mooring 412 for a pick up. I ask Ted if the moorings are in numerical order. “Somewhat,” he replies. As the morning passes, I notice that even Maverick has to search a bit to locate the boats.

When we arrive at 412, a young man hops off the sailboat Estesea, and after I introduce myself to request an interview, he says he recognizes me. I recognize him as well. Alex Courtier used to be a mate on the Block Island ferries. Now he is a launch driver for Conne Marine in Jamestown. He has been here visiting friends aboard the Estesea on an overnight trip, and he is returning to Jamestown for an afternoon work shift. Even some of Block Island’s visitors work on this holiday weekend.

While it wasn’t busy earlier in the day, calls are coming in now. We stop at the Serenity, a 25-year-old fully restored Shannon sailboat, and pick up Merrill Brown. He has a house in the Cuttings Cottages, but he’s been staying on the boat because his son and daughter-in-law are in the house this weekend. They helped him pick up the boat, which is on its first trip since the restoration in Newport. Buddy, his dog, comes along with him. The Australian shepherd, he says, is just the right size for a boat.

Just before we get to the Sunkist, we gather up three children who’ve been on a sleepover at one boat and need ferrying to another. Jan Furmen and Midnight, a schnauzer and poodle mix called a “schnoodle,” hop in at the Sunkist. Furmen says Midnight is not really a sailor, and so, though it’s fairly calm out on the water, I move toward the other end of the boat.

Beth Ann Noury and her boyfriend Jim are the last to board before we head back to the dock. Noury is here for the summer, driving Monica Hull Shea’s taxi. She tells us about her prior-evening saga: She and Jim were about to return to their boat from a night in town and found their dinghy had been stolen. Noury panicked because three teenagers were aboard their boat out on the pond. Fortunately, someone offered them a lift.

What’s up Doc?
We drop everyone off at the Boat Basin, and a kindly looking white-haired man carrying two five-gallon jugs of water is ready to return to his boat. I had such a good time on the first run, I decide to go out for one more, and that turns out to be a good thing. The man with the water jugs, Dr. Joel Johnson, from Hilton Head, South Carolina, and formerly from Boston, is an emergency room and urgent care physician. He runs an urgent care center in Hilton Head, and when I hear that, I immediately start recruiting him for the open physician position at the medical center.

Johnson has been sailing for 40 years, but he’d never been to Block Island before. He and his family stopped for two days on their way to Nantucket. During their stay, they took a taxi tour, had lunch at the National Hotel and Finn’s, took two walks, one to North Light and one from Fresh Pond to New Harbor, and stopped for lemonade at a roadside stand.

Would they come back? I ask. Definitely, he replies. Maybe, I suggest, he’d even consider standing in at the medical center? He says he’d think about it, that he might fit in here, given that he is a Red Sox fan and speaks “Boston.”

At Champlin’s we pick up the final passenger of this run, Aaron Cascone, who tells us Champlin’s launch driver has just quit. After a night on the island, Cascone is on his way back to the Blue Runner, a 22-foot center-console motorboat. He runs a fishing charter out of Point Judith most of the summer; the week of the Fourth, he follows the fish to Block Island.

I am amazed that even the fish come out here on the Fourth, and I am more surprised when he tells me that in the winter, he is a firefighter in Bristol, Connecticut, but is able to get the summers off. That’s how life should be, I think.