Unless you have a kayak, there are only two ways on and off Shelter Island. As they have since the 19th century, the full-time residents on the small island at the very tip of Long Island rely exclusively on the North Ferry and the South Ferry.
But the ferries increasingly were used by city dwellers trying to avoid traffic on the weekends — a tactic that treated Shelter Island basically as a bridge to the Hamptons. It may have annoyed the island’s residents, but it was a steady stream of cash to the ferry owners, both private businesses.
That steady stream came to an end with the pandemic.
Without the weekend crowd, the ferries that Shelter Island residents depend on all year — for everything from mail delivery to ambulances — will go broke. A government bailout might help keep the ferries running until the tourists return next year; so might doubling the tolls.
The big question remains: To save their beloved ferries, would islanders ever cede local control of their moat? Would they ever give up being, in the words of a local assemblyman, the Independent Nation of Shelter Island?
From the very first days of the lockdown, the Shelter Island town supervisor, Gerry Siller, knew that the ferries were in trouble. But it wasn’t until the end of July that he called on state and federal lawmakers for help: that was when North Ferry and South Ferry, two of the oldest businesses on the island and also major employers, finally exhausted $920,000 and $707,000, respectively, from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.
“The reality is we might not be able to continue service — it’s just not sustainable at this level,” Mr. Siller said. “This is every resident of Shelter Island’s lifeline to the mainland.”
These loans got both ferry companies through the early stages of the crisis without significant service cuts. “We ran three boats empty for a month to maintain regular transportation for medical workers,” said Bridgford Hunt, general manager of North Ferry. “We are running it until it hits a cliff. Come a time when we can’t make payroll, we’ll have to stop.” Both ferry companies say they won’t have enough cash to make it through the looming off-season.
In 2019, South Ferry moved 1.2 million people, and 785,000 vehicles; North Ferry took 1.5 million people and 840,000 vehicles. Even then they barely broke even. Tourists pay $20 for a round trip on the South Ferry, and $18 on North Ferry, subsidizing the round-trip fares for locals, who pay as little as $5.50. This year revenues through August are down by 22 percent for North Ferry and 21 percent for South Ferry. Both ferries last increased rates a year ago, and they estimate they will each need about $1.5 million in relief money by year’s end to stay solvent.
Manny Payano has worked for North Ferry for nine years, and he is about to receive his captain’s license, just in time to get the kind of seniority that might help if there are layoffs. His brother Carlos and nephew Mike also work for North Ferry, and the Payanos are one of at least nine families with more than one person working for a ferry on Shelter Island. “We’ve been living here so long, we know everyone,” Mr. Payano said. “Although some can’t tell if I’m Manny or Carlos.”
The year-round population of Shelter Island is around 2,200, and 128 of them work at either North Ferry or South Ferry. In summers, the population balloons to about 10,000. “This year, we got to 10,000 a lot earlier,” said Mr. Siller. Unfortunately for the ferries, islanders don’t seem to be going anywhere. Every event that brought traffic onto and across the island was canceled, and of the handful of inns there, three didn’t even open.
Revenue at North Ferry was down 52 percent at the end of May, and though things have improved since then, the high season is about to end. To make matters worse, North Ferry and South Ferry each purchased new boats last year, increasing their capacity by about 25 percent, but also increasing their debt by millions of dollars.
In meetings with Suffolk County legislators Mr. Siller urged lawmakers not to think of aid to the ferries as a bailout. “Picture it as a bridge collapsing,” he said, “and we have to get residents to the mainland.”
The town is pinning its hopes on a bill before the Senate, part of the Coronavirus Economic Relief for Transportation Services Act, but it is not clear that the funding would extend to private businesses. According to Mr. Siller, Shelter Island would only enter into a public/private agreement as a last resort to meet requirements for federal funding. “The town is not in the ferry business,” said Mr. Siller.
Ferries inhabit a space between vital infrastructure and romantic attraction, but unlike roads and bridges, some are privately owned.
The Steamship Authority, which operates ferries to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, is a public instrumentality that can draw on the State of Massachusetts if business temporarily dries up, resulting in a year-end deficit.
The Fire Island Ferries, owned by the Mooney family since 1948, carry a million people on foot to a 32-mile long strip of a car-free barrier island that is home to about 400 in the off-season. Tim Mooney said that revenue as of the end of August was down about 35 percent, but bailout money and belt-tightening should get them through the season. Fire Island Ferries is faced with a downturn in revenue like the Shelter Island ferries, but without the demand for running regular service throughout the winter months.
For Cliff Clark, chief executive of South Ferry, the pandemic has created the gravest threat to ferry service the island has seen. Service has been continuous since the ferry company was founded in 1830. “It’s been father to son since then,” said Mr. Clark, who has led South Ferry since the 1970s. North Ferry is owned by Shelter Island Heights Property Owners Corporation and was established in 1883 to provide service from the terminus of the Long Island Railroad in Greenport to the summer resort on Shelter Island.
There has been talk of building bridges to and from Shelter Island for decades. At some point in the 1960s, plans were drawn up and referendums scheduled, but a board of East End town supervisors shot down the idea.
Shelter Islanders love their independence and their privacy. As Evans Griffing, the town supervisor, put it: “98 percent of our residents feel the same way I do. We just don’t want any part of it.” Today, the fact that the Shelter Island Bridge and Tunnel Authority is an entity that exists only on the internet is testimony to the entrenched nature of the ferries in Shelter Island’s identity.
“There’s nothing like coming back to Shelter Island on the ferry,” Mr. Siller said. “You take a deep breath and you know it’s home.”