On the Job

Ferry captain’s job is far from routine

Sean O’Connor has worked for The Steamship Authority for almost 40 years.
Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe
Sean O’Connor has worked for The Steamship Authority for almost 40 years.

As a ferryboat captain, Sean O’Connor transports passengers and cargo between Martha’s Vineyard and Woods Hole, commanding the vessel Katama. His voyages can be monotonous, “just two rights and two lefts,” but sometimes are punctuated by moments of sheer terror. “Fog, high winds, and high seas can turn into a boating nightmare,” said O’Connor.

O’Connor begins his day at 5:30 a.m., the first of four round trips, powering up and testing the boat’s generator, electronics, and steering.

O’Connor, 56, has been with The Steamship Authority for almost four decades and remembers a simpler time. “It used to be that there were no shore lights at night till you were inside the Vineyard ­Haven harbor,” he said, “but now the whole island is lit up like a Christmas tree.”

Do you need to navigate any tricky waters during your journeys?


Woods Hole is one of the most treacherous harbors on the East Coast because of the current and rock formation.

How did you first get into maritime work?

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I was an accounting major and quit after two years of college when I realized I couldn’t stand accounting. I decided I should get a job, and started washing dishes on one of the old steamers. So now I’ve spent my whole career on the water, beginning as a mess man in the galley as a teen, and working my way up the ranks to captain.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve carried on your boat?

That first summer when I was washing dishes, the shark from the movie “Jaws” came on the vessel. It had wires sticking out of it, and I thought, “There is no way they can make that thing look real.” But the next summer, watching the movie, when the shark came out of the water, I almost jumped out of my seat.

Do you ever get seasick?

Not since I worked in the galley. My first few years, working down below deck, with all those pots and pans swinging back and forth and the dish water hitting me in my face, I realized it’s better to be dead than seasick.

What are some misconceptions about your job?

The captain’s job can seem very easy until something goes wrong — and then it’s all on you. It could be a car fire, an injured passenger, a grounding, or collision. Then you have to figure your way out of it.

Do you own your own boat?


No. I don’t go anywhere near the water on my day off. I have golf clubs. You can’t have both a boat and golf clubs and do justice to either one.

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at