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Ferry to Freedom: The Boston – Provincetown Ferry

In American History, Hidden History, Provincetown, Provincetown Ferry on July 7, 2013 at 3:15 pm
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Provincetown II in New York Harbor.

It’s been one of those weeks.  Your boss revealed yet another irrational side, you can’t seem to please your partner, and you had so little time to pack for this trip to Provincetown, you must have forgotten something.  When you arrive on the dock, you decide the perfectly quaffed men-boys in front of you are a little too self-consciously handsome and the high-spirited young women in front of them are too happy for this time of the morning.

Looks like you need a little Provincetown.

With the engines grumbling, the boat slowly makes a 180 degree turn and heads away from the city.  When it passes Nix Mate into the Outer Harbor, the seas swell, the breeze cools, and your body slackens.  You lean on the railing facing seaward for the rush of salt air.  Suddenly, you know why the women were laughing and the men-boys were smiling.  The truth is, you’re all lucky to be alive, on this boat, and heading to the unique seaside town you’ve come to love.  Transformations like this do not happen in traffic on Route 6, but are a regular event on the historic Boston-Provincetown ferry route. If you’re a veteran P-Town ferry rider, memories of prior trips dip and dart in the boat’s wake like seagulls chasing tossed pretzels.  For LGBT passengers who came of age in less welcoming times, the boat was a freedom ride to sexual and personal liberation where they could escape landside’s harsh stares.  Though only 55 nautical miles, it seemed like a trip over the rainbow.

Although schooners and steamers have carried supplies and people between Boston and Provincetown since the 18th century, one of the earliest boats dedicated to the tourist trade was The Longfellow in 1883.  Happy passengers in bloomers and stiff collars rode to the tip of Cape Cod for a stroll and some seafood.  They could not know how The Longfellow would meet its end in 1904.  Set to retire after twenty years of service, The Longfellow was given one final mission: to carry a lode of dynamite from Wilmington, Delaware to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  It was fall and a nor’easter was brewing off the coast of New England.  The boat’s seams stretched and broke. Leaks sprouted.  The terrified crew was sure the boat would blow up from a rouge wave or by running aground.  Fortunately, neither happened as the crew was gingerly plucked one-by-one from the ailing ship and put in lifeboats to shore. The boat was left just off shore, wedged between some rocks.  A year later, Truro residents heard a great explosion.  It was The Longfellow, finally blowing up.

The list of Boston-Provincetown ferries that followed The Longfellow reads like a roll-call of New England: The Yankee Clipper, The Romance, Naushon, The Dorothy Bradford, Acorn, Cape Cod, Northern Light and the pious-sounding, Truth. To Provincetown residents, the “Boston boat” has meant crowds and a welcome infusion of tourist dollars.  Provincetown native, Clement Silva remembers looking forward to the boat’s arrival, “As a kid growing up in the East End (in the 1950s), we’d get excited when the boat came in. We’d wait for the big waves it made and body surf them. It was true fun.” Another P-Town native, Peter Robert Cook, remembers diving for coins when The Steel Pier and The Boston Belle brought passengers from Boston in the 1950s and early 1960s.  “My friends and I dove for coins and bought lobster knuckles at the fish market at the end of the pier.   We also used our change to play the pin ball machines, shoot pool, or bowl a few strings at Anthony Perry`s Bowl A Way on Commercial Street.”

Paul J. Asher-Best recently recalled being in his 20s, working the lunch shift at the Post Office Café in the 1970s.  “We’d watch for the boat in the second floor lounge.  (When it arrived), it was our busiest hour of the day.  Bo (of the Bo Winiker Band, which got its start playing on the Provincetown ferry) used to bring a boatload of blue-haired matronly passengers with him.  I remember a woman who brought her grandchildren over on the boat.  At the end of the meal, she did not have enough money to pay the bill, and was mortified. A gentleman at the next table paid the check for her, and told her to save her money for ice cream for the kids. I started weeping right there on the floor, earning the reputation for not being tough enough to handle the boat rush.”

Hard to believe now, but between 1965-1972, there was no ferry service between Boston and Provincetown as auto travel reached it zenith.  In 1972, Dick Nakashian revived the route by starting the Bay State-Spray and Provincetown Steamship Company.  In an interview with writer, Laura Shabott, Nakashian said that when he launched The Provincetown in 1973, there was pent up demand for water travel.  The Provincetown carried 600 passengers and made the round-trip in nine hours.  Nakashian hired the Winiker Band to provide entertainment and opened two snack bars that served liquor.  Eight years later, Nakashian launched The Provincetown II, which held 1100 passengers and cut the round trip to six hours, making it more popular with day trippers.

The top decks of the Provincetown and Provincetown II were nicknamed “Steel Beach” by the crew as passengers, gay and straight sun-bathed and lounged with a languor that is fondly recalled by writer Dermot Meagher,  “On the top deck on sunny days the muscle-boys used to strip down and work on their tans. There were 2 or 3 bars. On the way back to Boston there were some strange couplings as the booze and the music did their tricks.” In 1987, Nakashian sold The Provincetown II to a corporate shipping company. It changed hands several times as ridership decreased.  By the mid-1990s, the future of the Boston-Provincetown run was in doubt as the company went in and out of receivership.

Enter Mike Glasfeld, the current owner of Bay State Cruises.  Glasfeld, a true believer in the history and magic of sea travel (he may be one of the few ferry owners given to quoting Mary Oliver poems), began as a deckhand on the Spirit of Boston in 1985 and by 1998, had risen to become president of marine operations of the boat’s parent company.  One of his assignments was to find a buyer for the ailing Provincetown II operation.  He did – himself. “They had faith in me and knew I was going to leave the company anyway to do something new and different.  …Bay State Cruises was bulked up to six boats at the time and I pared it down to (just the Provincetown II) and we were able to make a go of it.” Glasfeld now leases a “fast ferry” high speed catamaran Provincetown III and says he will add a second fast ferry, the Provincetown IV, this summer. He is committed to maintaining the Provincetown II, which makes selected runs to Provincetown.

In 2000, Boston Harbor Cruises began service to Provincetown from Long Wharf.  The 7,200 horse-powered Salacia, is the largest fast ferry to Provincetown.   The Salacia can reach 40 knots, equivalent to 45 MPH.  Alison Nolan and Christopher Nolan, carry on the family business, begun in 1926.  On a recent sunny afternoon, Christopher Nolan, pronounced business “great.” And Alison gives a lot of the credit to the town of Provincetown.  “They’ve done a lot to make it a place people want to go to.”

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