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Serious business — and fun — on the water for ferry captain

John Xenides was just a kid, traveling with his parents from their home in New York City by train to New London, where the family would catch a ferry to Block Island for their annual summer vacation.

But young Xenides wasn’t taken by the train as much as he was by the boat that would ferry his family to New Shoreham, the municipality that encompasses all of Block Island, and the smallest town in the nation’s smallest state.

It was there that he would develop an interest in boats, particularly ferries, as he watched from the shore as captains and crews would maneuver the vessels into their slips to unload passengers and cargo.

“There was just something intriguing about it, about watching the boat back down, and watching the prop wash, and watching the single-screw boat go back and forth," Xenides said. “It was just fascinating to see that.”

Now 70, Xenides has been a ferry captain since 1979 — and 32 years of that time for New London-based Cross Sound Ferry.

Four days a week, pretty much year-round, Xenides runs the Susan Anne, the 235-foot-long ferry that can carry 80 vehicles and upward of 800 people. In reality, the maximum number of passengers is far fewer than what can be accommodated, maybe about 200 or 250, but in season, the vehicle decks are sold out.

For three of the boat’s four daily round trips between New London and Orient Point, N.Y., Xenides is in the wheelhouse. Each leg is 17½ miles, and takes about 80 to 90 minutes, depending on the weather and current.

The view from the spacious pilothouse is grand, especially on a perfect summer day, with close-up views of the two lighthouses at the mouth of the Thames River and another at Orient Point, as well as a wide assortment of passing watercraft.

On Xenides’ watch, the satellite radio is tuned to “60s on 6,” and the Four Seasons serenade with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” as he prepares for departure.

From New London, Xenides takes the boat off the slip and into the Thames, then passes the wheel over to a mate. The captain will supervise until they’re about three-quarters of a mile off Orient Point, then he’s back at the helm, to maneuver the boat’s throttles and bow thruster to get the 1,460-gross-ton vessel into the slip and up snug to the ramp.

In 1962, at the age of 14, he started his career working on ferryboats at Interstate Navigation in Point Judith, R.I. Legally, he was too young to be there, but the late John H. Wronowski, patriarch of the family that runs Cross Sound today, didn’t know that at the time.

Xenides started as a seasonal deck hand, using a hand cart to load lumber, shingles, cinder blocks, telephone poles, food and beverages for transport to Block Island. Over time, he worked his way up, and did a stint as the bursar there.

He stayed at Interstate until 1985, with the exception of one year when he worked for the Martha’s Vineyard Steamship Authority.

But he also took a position as a firefighter with the Narragansett Fire Department and put in 20 years there, while still working for the ferry companies on his days off. In 1985, he made the switch from Interstate to Cross Sound Ferry, where he has worked ever since.

“I just love it,” he said of his work. “I don’t even look at it as a job. You are on the water, not at a desk, and it’s just enjoyable.”

In 1979, he earned his 1,600-ton master’s license from the U.S. Coast Guard, and has worn the captain’s four bars on his shoulder boards ever since.

Over his long career, he’s watched the technology change. He acknowledges the job is still a huge responsibility, but not the challenge it was decades ago.

“It is so easy now,” he said, listing the tools he has to do his job, and the fact that he handles the throttles and bow thruster, not being dependent on engineers down below.

“Back then, you had to get the telegraph and you had to ring the bells down to the engine room, and you had to wait for the engineer to acknowledge it," he said. "It was a challenge, you know?”

He admits he’s old school, and one of just two captains in the Cross Sound fleet who still wears a neck tie.

“I keep telling these guys, have some pride in yourself and the job that you do,” he said.

He’s dressed in black slacks, a white shirt with epaulettes, his black cap, the tie and sunglasses, as he surveys the horizon from the bridge and instructs the mate to slightly adjust the boat’s course.

It’s a cloudless summer day, with calm seas and a full complement on the vehicle deck below. There was a long standby line when the Susan Anne left New London.

In summertime, ferries run at least every hour, and on weekends and holidays, every half-hour, with Cross Sound boats passing one another on the Thames River, on Long Island Sound and over at Orient Point.

The Susan Anne's sophisticated radar shows other vessels on oversized screens, with identifying information on who they are and what speed and direction they are cruising.

Xenides can tell exactly what time another boat will cross his path and how close, and determine his own course based on that.

He can steer the boat with a rudder, or a wheel, and uses the throttles to power up and down his engines. The bow thruster helps him to crab the boat sideways when he needs to, especially getting into a slip.

He’s always on watch for lobster pot buoys and other boats. Small craft sometimes pass too close for comfort, and Xenides shakes his head when one does just that.

“They take a chance if their engine fails,” he says, and his voice trails off.

Every so often, a sailboat will cut in front of him, and Xenides said he slows the ferry to let it get by.

“We don’t stop. We don’t blow the horn. I just pull it back to slow us down until they pass,” he said.

His shifts are 16½ hours and he gets one round-trip crossing off, about four hours. He’s got a small cabin just off the wheelhouse with a bed, mini fridge, television and a wireless connection. He’s got a Nordic Track in the wheelhouse, and exercises before he starts work in the morning.

He spends his nights in his cabin on his four-day work week, and said one of the prettiest sights he sees on the job is the sunrise in Orient Point.

“In June, when the sun is coming up at 5 in the morning, sunrises over there can be pretty spectacular,” he said.

The sunsets also are nice, but after decades on the water, he’s stopped taking sunset photographs.

“My wife said that’s enough,” he explained.

Sometimes in the winter and spring he sees porpoises, and twice he’s sighted whales. He’s had celebrities on board, including former wrestler and Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, singer Billy Joel, actor Alan Alda, and former Major League Baseball player David Winfield.

His job is to ensure the safety of passengers, cargo and crew, and mostly it is routine, he said. In heavy weather, or persistent fog, it can be stressful, even with today’s technology.

Many years ago, he was at the ferry’s wheel on a Sailfest fireworks night when fog rolled in just as he was bringing the boat down the Thames River. It was nerve-racking, he said, as he navigated in at clutch speed to avoid all the recreational boaters.

He’s seen seas as high as 15 feet, perhaps 18, but he doubts anyone except his mate would believe him.

“The boat can handle it, but it’s a little unnerving,” he said. “And you want to make the trip comfortable for passengers.”

It’s the nor’easters that create the most problems.

“Westerly weather doesn’t bother us,” Xenides said. “The worst wind we get comes howling out of the east or northeast.”

But mostly — 95 percent of the time, he estimates — it’s smooth sailing.

As the Susan Anne noses into the slip at Orient Point, Xenides’ mate, Paul Russo, heads out on the farthest point of the bow to give the captain hand signals to get him up to the ramp.

From about 60 feet out, the captain is too close to see where he’s going.

Russo, like the captain, is old school, and prefers to use his arms and hands to guide the captain in, rather than give verbal directions from the vehicle deck via radio, like the younger hands do.

He signals 30 feet, 20, 15, 10 and then closes the gap to let his hands meet to signal touchdown at the ramp.

The captain gets a short break as vehicles and passengers depart the Susan Anne and the boat is reloaded, before guiding her out of Orient Point for the trip back to New London.

He likes his job, he says again, and as long as he’s capable and healthy, he’s not ready to give it up.

“I retired years ago when I left the fire department,” Xenides said. “This is just fun.”


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