Here, briefly, is the story of my most memorable childhood trip aboard the Steamship Authority’s crummiest boat, the M.V. Uncatena. This is circa the mid to late 1980s.
The “Uncy” (also the “Tincantena” or “Junkatena”) was beloved by no one as the SSA’s smallest and least comfortable vessel. She was built as an auxiliary boat in 1965, and quite tiny:
She was fast, but everybody hated her spartan, bus-like accommodations, compared to the graceful, larger steamships that had traditionally served the Vineyard and Nantucket. So in 1972 the SSA lengthened her:
The new midsection was built slightly out of spec, so you could always see the seams down the hull where the new middle part had been welded in.
Even after lengthening, she was tiny, inconvenient and unlikeable. Among other things, to get from the port to the starboard passenger compartment, you either had to go up on the exposed hurricane deck, or down to the noisy freight deck. The port side had the lunch counter, but also allowed smoking in the 1980s. So we’d always choose the starboard side, and have to cross over if we wanted a snack (and enough second-hand smoke to gag us). There was also no way to stand at the bow of the vessel outside, because of the location of the wheelhouse, and the boat was among the first to get fixed plastic seats outside, instead of the moveable canvas deck chairs that you could set up however you liked. On the plus side, she did have super interesting hydraulic doors which were fun for a kid to watch.
The story: My dad, brother Tyler (two years younger than me) and I were going off-Island, I forget why. My dad drove his 1984 Subaru hatchback that later became my Island car, then Tyler’s, then our younger brother Davis’s. We boarded the boat in Vineyard Haven and my dad parked the car in the port-side lane, per the SSA guys who always waved you to within an inch of the car in front of you.
I remember this specifically, because we got up to the starboard passenger compartment, found our usual table to hang out for 40 minutes (where my dad would read his New York Times), and Tyler proudly said, “Dad, I locked the car.” As in, he took care of business, for the family’s sake.
My dad’s eyes popped open, “You did what?”
“I locked the car.”
On Martha’s Vineyard in the 1980s, we didn’t lock anything. Not the cars, not the house. You’d go to Vineyard Haven Main Street and do your shopping with the keys in the ignition. (Who steals a car on an island? Only joyriding kids. And nobody wanted a 1984 Subaru hatchback.)
Ty had locked the keys in the car. We had 25 minutes, 30 minutes tops to solve this problem before the boat docked in Woods Hole and we would have caused a major hassle with an immobile car blocking a freight-deck lane.
Fortunately, this car had a sunroof, and even more fortunately, we had left it cracked open to let air inside.
Somehow we got a hold of a coat hanger, and I used it to reach in and pop the sunroof, and slither inside the car to open it up.
It seemed very dramatic at the time.
The Uncy was sold in 1993 to become a casino boat, and was eventually scrapped.
For more pix and memories about our old ferries and steamers, see my Facebook page.