Passenger Vessels:To the North, South —And A Little Island Sheltered

Wednesday, January 15, 2003
To those not familiar with the New York metropolitan area — the eastern end of Long Island is demographically multi-faceted. Traveling east on the Long Island Expressway, (the Island' main thoroughfare), the 118-mile long island, splits into two "forks," the North and the South. With the hamlets of Greenport and Orient Point situated on the easternmost points of the island on the north, the South Fork boasts the tony Hampton villages and the historical village of Montauk Point — literally the end of the earth before reaching the whitecaps of the Atlantic Ocean. While the two forks may differ in reputation and history — they have one similarity — a small island "sheltered" in between. Known as Shelter Island, this piece of land, which is as historical as it is controversial — is serviced by two ferry companies — North Ferry and South Ferry.

"Go east," was the mandate from my editor to find a story for the Passenger Vessel Annual, so I traveled as far east on Long Island as possible without getting my feet wet.

MR/EN stopped in to see Capt. Cliff Clark and Bill Clark, the brothers who operate the 200-year old South Ferry. As the fifth-generation of the family, the brothers manage the four-vessel fleet from their headquarters on the Southern tip of the Island — linking passengers and vehicles to the village of North Haven located in the South Fork of Long Island — just outside a small town known as Sag Harbor.

On the North Fork, the North Ferry terminal is located in the hamlet of Greenport, bringing vehicles and passengers to the northern end of the island, which can then link up to the south by driving about 4.5 miles via Route 114, to the South Ferry terminal.

While the company's traditions may be "old school," South Ferry's fleet exemplifies the new breed of ferry transportation. With myriad of refits and refurbs to its two older vessels — North Haven and South Ferry II — the company has added two new technologically advanced ferries — Southern Cross and Sunrise — to its fleet. With the addition of Southern Cross in 1998 and Sunrise this past summer, the vessels, could very well be "updated" versions of the Southside and Sunrise — two 65-ft. (19.8-m), yellow pine wooden boats that were constructed by Cliff and Bill's grandfather, C.Y. Clark, in 1925 and 1926, respectively, and the last wooden boats to built by the Clark family. According to historical reports obtained from South Ferry, these original vessels remained in service to Shelter Island until 1941 when North Ferry built its first steel vessel, Islander.

History in the Making

While both the North and South Ferry companies have historical roots planted on Shelter Island for generations, (North Ferry for more than 100 years, South Ferry since 1793), South Ferry designates itself as the oldest family-owned ferry company in the U.S. While some may balk at this statement, Bill Clark, South Ferry's vice president, touts "blood is thicker than water," and invites anyone who disagrees with the statement to come forward and state their case. According to the South Ferry Crew Book, the company was established sometime during the late 1700's more than likely at the close of the Revolutionary War, when Samuel G. Clark came across the Long Island Sound from Connecticut into Shelter Island, where he purchased the property where a local marina now stands, and opened a ferry service to the Island. Some years later, he decided to settle on the south side of the Island, (where the newest generation of the Clark family still resides), and purchased an area of land to establish his farming efforts. It was on the south side, that Samuel decided he would remain, and once again, set up a ferry service (this time from the south side), via a rowboat that would aid boatless travelers to navigate between his land and what was then known as Hog Neck (now North Haven).

Moving ahead to the 19th Century, South Ferry progressed for its time, with travel to North Haven stepping up, so did ferry trips to and from Shelter Island, with the sons of the company's original owner, Samuel and David running the business. With Samuel moving beyond South Ferry in the late 1800's, David assumed the helm of South Ferry, and managed to expand the "fleet" in 1888 with the purchase of Elloine, a 32-ft. (9.7-m) boat, which towed a scow for cargo and carriages with horses tethered alongside. Following the death of David, due to a severe case of pneumonia, his son, Clifford Y. Clark, began the third-generation of South Ferry by building an even larger scow at the turn of the Century, which accommodated a carriage with hitched horse, known as Fannie. Measuring 20 x 10 ft. (6 x 3 m), the boat, which served with Elloine, made trips back and forth to carry passengers and supplies.

At the turn of the century designated South Ferry became official when it was incorporated under the laws of the State of New York in 1906, with all positions of officers and directors held by family members. Capt. C.Y. Clark took South Ferry, (and survived) past some of the most historical events of our time — WWI, the Great Depression and WWII. It was also at this time (the 1920's), that the State of New York brainstormed an idea to build a bridge linking North Haven to Hay Beach at Orient Point — due East of Greenport where the North Ferry currently operates from. Even though plans had been drawn up and serious discussions had, (South Ferry even held a role by renting out Elloine at $50 per day to take soundings for the New York State surveyors), the idea never came to fruition and was eventually dropped.

With no imminent plans for a structural link between the island, the ferries were the only means of transport to get not only passengers on and off the Island, but much-needed supplies as well. Seeing the rise in truck traffic during the 1940's, the Clark family designed and built the first known independent stanchions with no overhead obstructions, the concept, which had never before been introduced on Long Island, has gone on to become a popular method for ferry boats operating today.

Following WWII, C.Y. Clark remained at the head of the family operation, while extending the operations to his two sons, Donald and William (Capt. Cliff and Bill's father), who would be known as the fourth generation of Clarks to run South Ferry. According to Cliff Clark, who as the fifth generation of the family, serves as the company's president, "South Ferry is a work in progress, our ancestors had a vision and a passion — they saw what others didn't," he said.

William, who happened to be a "genius" when it came to General Motors 671 diesel engines, was (like his ancestors), born on Shelter Island, but didn't see it as this sleepy, little community, but as one that could thrive with the operation of a structured, innovative ferry business. While Donald concentrated his efforts on the operational side, William was hands-on, advancing the company technically, while focusing on the utmost in customer service. The new "Patriarch" of South Ferry relieved the company of all outside maintenance costs by working with machinist Otto Hulse in his Greenport machine shop. It was through Hulse, and self-taught mechanical knowledge, that William would go on to hold the title of Eastern Long Island's "expert" on General Motors 671 engines. This was especially helpful when economic times were tough, especially before the cultural boom of the Hamptons and Shelter Island. Rather than balk on service, William would maintain the ferries, paint them, and fix the engines himself — rather than disappoint his customers by halting service. And this philosophy has become a mainstay. According to Bill Clark, vice president of South Ferry (and William's son), "there has never been a day where the ferry has not run." Even if the usual three-minute trip between the Island and North Haven, took three hours due to ice and/or snow, the ferry would still make its way across.

With the death of C.Y. Clark (William's father) in 1961, William assumed full responsibility of the company, furthering his vision and passion for South Ferry. He worked on additional improvements, such as new painting and coating methods - mainly zinc, which replaced what, was (at that time) the dangerous and ineffective red lead. According to Cliff Clark, his father's motto was, "Blast it, zinc it, and paint it." William found that zincing made a huge difference in the maintenance of the ferry fleet as it prevented the steel from rusting. In addition to his focus on the maintenance of the fleet, William Clark, gave just as much, if not more attention, to those who were (and still are today), the livelihood of the South Ferry operation — the customers. "Dad had a passion for giving good service and taking care of his customers," Cliff Clark said. "While he embraced new ways for operation, he was also a deeply spiritual person, with a strong faith." As a devout Christian, William believed that the core of the company's charter was "the desire to try new things based on Christian principles," furthering his spirituality and strong faith, which carried over into his business philosophy.

While William was a passionate, spiritual man, he was a devout businessman as well, sometimes sacrificing his own needs for those of his customers. Cliff remembers one specific time when his father, who had his car in line for the ferry on a busy summer day during a holiday weekend, and upon discovering that there was only a spot for one more vehicle, backed up his car and turned around, so that the line of cars behind him could load up the ferry.

Involved to the End

Even up until his last days, William still remained an active part of South Ferry — despite his deteriorating health. A few days before their father passed away, William and Cliff remember the day he was brought home via ambulance, making sure that his stretcher was raised to a point that he could see his ferry's namesake — Captain Bill Clark — pulling into the terminal as he arrived home. As the ferry went by, William didn't complement the gesture, he merely stated, "Keep her that way." Referring to the vessel's current condition. He died three days later on April 24, 1999 at the age of 86.

Today, both Cliff and Bill, oversee the daily operations of South Ferry, while continuing to instill their father's foundation for providing the utmost in customer service and innovation. Mainly with the addition of their newest vessel, M/V Sunrise, which was delivered from Warren, R.I.-based Blount-Barker Shipbuilding this past summer. The vessel is the beginning of the new generation at South Ferry. With its two Detroit Diesel engines, two Twin Disc gears and Rolls Royce propellers, the 101-ft. (30.7-m) double-ended ferry was built by Blount-Barker for $1.4 million. According to Bill Clark, South Ferry's vice president, Sunrise, which replaces the former Captain Ed Cartwright, has (instead of the traditional reverse gear bolted up to the engine) a stand alone reverse gear, which makes it easier to replace the vessel's Vulkan couplings. "If there's any (coupling) failure onboard on a busy day, this will enable us to change the coupling in just a few hours. Bill mentioned other innovations such as fixed engine room Inergen Ansul fire suppression system, which utilizes non-lethal gas. "The Inergen system puts out a fire in the engine room by reducing the oxygen level in the engine room," Bill said, "But leaves enough oxygen for breathing."

The ferry also employs high efficiency deck floodlights by Phoenix, two independent pilothouse system control stations with emergency back-up controls and redundant navigation lights, which Bill explained have a back-up fixture. "In case a bulb burns out, the ferry captain would hear and see both and audible and visual alarm that would release a back-up light until the bulb could be replaced.

"We want to provide good service here," Bill said, "The need for new equipment is driven by demand and the equipment matches the demand." Will South Ferry expand its fleet in the near future? While Bill did not elaborate on the subject, he did not completely rule it out either. "The trend on the East End of Long Island is growth," he said. "Sometime in the near future we will increase capacity, either by putting a 30-ft. (9.1-m) mid-body into one of our existing boats or constructing another one." He added: "We (South Ferry) were very pleased with Blount-Barker, and if it gets to the point where we're ready to build again, we'd love to build another boat with them."

While Bill admits that 2002 was not as good a year for South Ferry as 2001, that does not mean that the ferry industry is in jeopardy. "There's more of a demand for ferry service," he said. "The trend is steady and it will evolve into the future. While there are no concrete plans right now, I am certain that the time will come when we will need a new ferry."

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