The Joy of the Ferry Commute

The Joy of the Ferry Commute

Illustrated by Guy Billout
Illustrated by Guy Billout
No traffic, no security lines, no cramped seating—just the gentle sway of the sea and smell of salt-tinged air make the ferry commute ideal.

Some people take ferries to work. Others take them to Capri or Nantucket. I took one the spring before last to an opera about plastic surgery in Copenhagen. As part of its expanding mass-transit boat system, the city runs yellow “harbor buses” for operagoers, and they’re a big hit.

As we sped across the inner harbor, passing antique galleons and the spires of the royal palace, the Opera House (a stunning modern orb that could be a distant cousin to a disco ball) appeared through the mist. With well-heeled locals, also late for curtain, I jumped off, ran up the dock into the lobby, and took a glass elevator up to my balcony seat.

The opera, Skin Deep, by Armando Iannucci and David Sawer, was in English. Unless you like dissonant music and a libretto that rhymes infection with Botox injection, it wasn’t pleasant. But it hardly mattered. I was already looking forward to my ride home after the show.

What can I say? I’m a ferry aficionado. Whether the ride is urban or rural, minutes or hours, something about it lifts the spirit and clears the mind. In her memoir The Gastronomical Me, M. F. K. Fisher describes boat passengers with “faces full of contentment never to be found elsewhere.” That’s pretty much me on every ferry ride I’ve ever taken, whether in British Columbia, Brazil, or India. Even the workaday Port Jefferson–to-Bridgeport ferry route that I often use to bypass traffic on the Long Island Expressway is a tonic for the toxicity of life in a busy metropolitan area. One passenger, Bob Sciascia, must have known that when he hopped onto the ferry years ago after a fight with his girlfriend. He ended up a bartender on the boat for 13 years, entertaining customers in a shirt with martini epaulets until the day he died. He even published a book, Ferry Tales, which is a collection of passenger wit and wisdom. “A ferry ride is a kind of time-out,” he wrote. “There’s nothing you can do until you get to the other side.” Except, he claims, relax.

To be practical, any public form of transportation that saves hours of driving and keeps cars and buses off the roads is good news. Sydney, Hong Kong, Istanbul, and Seattle move millions around by ferry every day. In watery New York City, the trip to Staten Island is the city’s one public ferry route, but it still transports 65,000 riders a day. In Walt Whitman’s day, there were teeming masses commuting by boat from Brooklyn to Manhattan for him to describe in his poems. Now, sadly, the crowds are stuck on subways, causing a recent New York Times column to declare the city’s extensive waterfront a big growth opportunity. And incidentally, once you’ve discovered the ferry from Boston to Provincetown, you’ll never want to drive again. That said, the truth is that ferries are as much about poetry, and seeing life on land from a different perspective, as about practicality.

Edna St. Vincent Millay captured it perfectly in Recuerdo. “We were very tired, we were very merry,” she wrote about the Staten Island boat. “We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.” Years ago, I did the same thing with a college roommate. We had nowhere else to sleep, and so we dozed and stumbled on the empty decks with Lady Liberty to the west and lower Manhattan’s canyons ahead, as “the wind came cold, and the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold,” just like Millay described it.

In northern Brazil, I took a public ferry to the canal communities near the city of Belém, where people keep tarantulas as pets, and to a nearby island called Algodoal, where the Amazon pours into the Atlantic. In Kerala, in southern India, I paid five cents to a ferryman who sang as he rowed across the black estuarial waters, just like the ferryman who let Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha ride for free in his youth. (Better him than Charon, the mythical Greek figure who ferries souls across the River Styx to Hades.) An hour or so west of the modern ills of Cancún, Mexico, I took a ferry to an island without cars called Holbox, and from a village in Croatia, I ferried to the resort island of Hvar, where a Balkan brass band was playing in the harbor. Some crossings were more dramatic than others. I once hid from another passenger (we were feuding) on the small Fishers Island ferry to New London, Connecticut. And imagine my delight one spring, after a hectic week of traveling, to find a little ferry right outside my hotel in Stockholm. Docking at various spots in the city, it gave me a satisfying command of a maritime capital.

“This is where the rich people live,” a crew member named Igor told me in perfect English as we docked in the Östermalm neighborhood. “And over there is the church where our Princess Victoria’s wedding will be. She’s marrying her personal trainer, so one day he’ll be king. Isn’t that great?” Not the kind of remark you would expect from a taciturn Swede. But then, since you have nothing to do but look out at the world as you cruise slowly along in the open air, ferries provoke conversation.

“I hear it’s very modern,” my Copenhagen ferry captain remarked about the plastic-surgery opera I’d just seen. The boat was full as it left the opera behind, and I noticed that the passengers, whose faces had looked crimped moments before, were relaxing into the ride. This ferryman, whose first name was Henning, had been at his post for years but had not yet seen an opera performance.

“But from what I hear,” he said, “it takes too long for Carmen to die.”

I nodded in agreement, and took it with a grain of sea salt.

Bob Morris is the author of Assisted Loving and a contributor to the New York Times.

Blue Star Ferries, Greece View the country’s islands and inlets, from Santorini to the lesser-known Amorgos.

Manly Ferry, Sydney This half-hour cruise sails past Fort Denison, Harbour Bridge, and the glowing Sydney Opera House.

Star Ferry, Hong Kong Take in unobstructed vistas of the city’s sprawling skyline between Kowloon and Hong Kong.

Golden Horn Ferry, Istanbul Highlights on this one-hour cruise along the Bosporus include the Eyüp Sultan Mosque and the 19th-century cultural center Feshane.

Ferry Services, Kerala These commuter ships travel scenic routes around the palm-fringed lakes and islands of the Indian state’s canal network.

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