Steady hand steers Charlotte-Essex ferry

Photo by Mark Kobzik
Charlotte-Essex Ferry Captain Al Wood crosses Lake Champlain all winter.

Captain Al Wood remembers the exact date when Blizzard Stella hit last year: March 23. With its 7-foot waves and gusting, snowy winds, the winter storm brutalized the Northeast and left its mark aboard the Charlotte-Essex ferry.

In the captain’s room, where he steers the ship on its 25-minute journey between Charlotte and Essex, N.Y., there are colored marks and dents from the night Stella rolled in and knocked everything in the cabin to the floor.

That night, Wood, 57, needed a sturdy grip on the wheel as the boat rocked in the storm. Visibility was nonexistent, and Wood had to rely almost solely on his radar.

Wood described feeling as if there were no up or down, no sense of where he was going except for a radar screen.

When he got home to Milton that night, Wood poured himself a healthy glass of scotch.

Wood called himself stubborn for staying out there for as many trips as he took. Finally relenting, he called it a night instead of making one last trip.

“As a captain, you don’t like the feeling of, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen,’” Wood said.

Photo by Al Wood
Sea smoke rises as Captain Al Wood pushes a football field-sized ice chunk out of his way on a trip across Lake Champlain.

In the 25 years he’s been a captain, Wood said that night was the worst one. Afterward, he had talked to the crew members on the Grand Isle ferry and they were surprised at how long Wood and his crew kept going through the storm, especially since the Charlotte-Essex passage gets the worst wind and waves.

More than 120,000 people crossed Lake Champlain on the Charlotte-Essex ferry last year.

In 1983, Wood started off as a deckhand on the Burlington ferry. After taking a few years off, he got his captain’s license and has worked ever since in Charlotte, Grand Isle and Burlington. As someone who wanted to be outdoors and handle big machinery, being a captain on Lake Champlain was just about perfect.

Wood spends much of his summer on the Grand Isle ferry. In winter, he’s at the helm of the Charlotte-Essex ferry where he has gotten pretty good at dealing with iced-over stretches of Lake Champlain. To avoid being iced-in at port, Wood using the ferry pushes football-field-sized ice chunks out of the way. While this isn’t the coldest winter he’s been through, Wood did say the last few weeks have been brutal.

As for Champ? Wood brought up the lake-monster topic with a laugh. While he denies ever seeing the infamous and rumored prehistoric denizen of Lake Champlain – and noting that his job requires routine drug testing – he did share a recollection of an odd occurrence on the radar. It was “a couple of years ago on a nice fall night” when a strong target popped up near Whallons Bay and then went back down. Wood couldn’t explain why a target so big could rise to the surface.

“Something big came up, then went back down,” Wood said, maybe raising an eyebrow.

Wood said the best parts of his job are the freedom and sense of accomplishment that come with every tack, especially on a crazy night like March 23, 2017.

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