Messenger Post Newspapers, August 4th, 2006.
Photo by Jack Haley.
(Copyright © 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers)
Larry Dickens, who served as chief mate on the ill-fated vessel, has written a book about adventure and misadventure.
“Fast ferries ... they’re heartbreakers.”
So a maritime colleague said to Larry Dickens. And so Dickens
learned himself through two years of service aboard The Spirit of
Ontario I, the ferry that traversed the waters between Rochester
and Toronto in 2004 and 2005 before the city of Rochester
pulled the plug.
Dickens, a chief mate aboard the ferry, has written a book about the ferry’s two years of operation, from the crew’s perspective. “Gone With the Breeze” — a play off the ship’s nickname in its first year, later changed to the Cat — is being released today.
“The book is going to serve a lot of purposes,” Dickens, a South Bristol resident, said Tuesday. “It’s part history, part memoir, part crew tribute. I’m hoping it’ll serve as a bookend for the whole fast-ferry saga here.”
His book provides an inside look at the process of shuttling passengers between the cities, including the hundreds of unexpected complications that would arise — dangerous fuel oil leaks, Customs detainees, a bomb-threat hoax, even a driverless Volkswagen whose owner forgot to engage the parking brake. And the occasional minor accident — Dickens relates his horror at grazing the Toronto gangway when he was steering.
The book’s release arrives amid renewed scrutiny of the ferry. Last week, a state Comptroller’s Office audit — requested by Assemblymen Brian Kolb and Joseph Errigo — found fault with the city of Rochester for, among other things, failing to properly oversee the first-year operator Canadian American Transportation Systems’ financial condition. City officials, for example, were unaware that the company had taken out a short-term $7.4 million loan. Another disclosure: The city spent an added $1 million (in addition to its $1.3 million loan to CATS) to pay to equip the ferry.
Rochester Mayor Robert Duffy, who announced in January that the city would not approve an $11.5 million bond to keep the ferry going, Wednesday announced he has asked for a renewed criminal investigation into CATS and has ordered an audit of inventories and purchases made during the ferry’s startup. He also wants the city to find a way to break a 40-year, $1-a-year terminal lease given to a company subsidiary.
For his part, Dickens hopes his book will get people asking questions about the factors that led to the ferry’s failure. “Gone With the Breeze” doesn’t shy away from his frustrations with management decisions and missed opportunities he finds unwise, even maddening, on the part of CATS, the city and Canadian operator Bay Ferries, which ran the ferry in 2005 after Rochester bought it at auction.
In the book, longtime merchant mariner Dickens faults what he sees as a lack of priority given for training American masters-in-training such as himself, which he sees as leading to the failure to re-flag the ship under the U.S. banner, for which two American masters are needed. (There was only one by the time the 2005 season ended.) Reflagging the ship would have made the ferry eligible for a number of federal grants and other funding, he noted Tuesday.
Dickens also discusses failures on Bay Ferries’ part to report major engine trouble to regulatory agencies; failures the second year to take advantage of the ferry’s promotional capabilities (the first year, it often was used by community groups for special events); the occasional quizzical decision to run the ferry with a skeleton contingent of passengers; and a general unpleasant management style in 2005.
But the frustrations are only a part of Dickens’ story. For the most part, his book is the tale of a crew working in tandem to create a memorable experience for the ferry’s approximately 243,000 passengers, handling everything from securing their cars to mixing their drinks, from helping with a shipboard marriage proposal to bandaging the occasional cut or scrape.
“I didn’t want to look like a disgruntled employee, because I’m not,” Dickens said. “I tried to write in as detached a way as possible.”
Ian Sherwood of Rochester, a chief mate, hasn’t read Dickens’ book, but he expressed confidence in his former colleague.
“I’m sure Larry did a very good job of giving insight into the sacrifices that the professional crew made,” Sherwood said Wednesday afternoon. “I took (the job) because I saw the potential back in ’03. I took a risk myself; there’s a lot of people who definitely, definitely did the work and sacrifice and picked up the slack of management. ... That’s common for us in the maritime industry: We get paid to get the job done.
“I’m not bitter,” Sherwood added. “It was fun, I enjoyed it. There really were some top-notch people on the boat.”
Dickens, whose books include nautical novel “Tropical Depression” and young-adult books “Forever Ten” and “Mrs. McGillacuddy’s Garden Party” — began working on the book during the first season, interviewing fellow crew members. He continued working on it through the abrupt end of the season when CATS cited accumulating debt.
“My original intent was to end it after the auction,” Dickens said. “I thought that when the city took it over, everyone would live happily ever after.”
For the time being, Dickens is concentrating on promoting “Gone With the Breeze,” taking orders on his Web site, getting it into stores and arranging signing events. He’s particularly looking forward to an Aug. 11 kickoff signing at Scuttlebutts on Charlotte’s River Street, which has hosted a monthly happy hour for former ferry employees. Eventually, he’ll likely seek another maritime job.
If another fast-ferry project ever launches, would Dickens come aboard?
He paused. “Maybe ask me in a year.”
Dickens’ book will be available at www.LarryDickens.com and at various retail outlets, including Borders; Barnes & Noble Booksellers; Renaissance-The Goodie II Shop in Canandaigua; South Bristol Cultural Center in Canandaigua; Artizann’s Gift Gallery in Naples and other sites.