So Block Island

The Life of a Block Island Ferry Captain

So Rhode Island Magazine ·

Six trips, twelve hours a day. Captains work long days at the helm, steering through weather and tides, delivering food, cars, bicycles, building supplies, beer and tens of thousands of people to Block Island. From the deck and wheelhouse, Paul Svenevik has watched the island ebb and flow through seasons, politics, purple flag days and seemingly endless, winding lines of passengers. Captaining the 177’ Carol Jean, Paul is continuing a family tradition of earning his living at sea.

“He was the real deal,” Paul says of his dad, in an ode to the skills and sacrifices of being a sea captain in the Merchant Marines, travelling the world. “I always loved the ocean, being on it, being in it, being around it.” Fresh from URI with a degree in political science, Paul worked on a few commercial fishing boats, then for a time at the Fisherman’s Co-Op in Galilee, unloading and packing fish in a busy port. Each day fishermen streamed in and out, in boats large and small, to lands near and far. In 1984, after a year on the docks, he went to work for Interstate Navigation as a deckhand.

For those interested in more than a summer job, the first years are an introduction to crowds, engines, lines and seas. Two years later he became a mate, opening him up to a world of learning to be a captain, of keeping passengers safe and building confidence enough to run his own boat. Then, after earning his 100-ton
license, Paul became a captain, like his father before him.

Mirroring the island, the ferry used to be more open, more relaxed. Finding a milk carton and a square of diamond plate deck to sit on, passing cans of beer among those not willing to venture to upper decks, with their hard slat benches and airless cabins, was considered normal back when he started. Certainly much has changed, like the vessels themselves, the sheer numbers of people and security concerns. “Post 9/11, we have more restrictions, the Coast Guard does their inspections, the wheelhouse is off limits,” Paul says.

He has seen spouting whales, sunning sharks and mountainous waves tall as wheelhouse windows and enjoyed a front row seat as Deep Water Wind built the Block Island Wind Farm. He has passed those same fishing boats and captains heading for fishing grounds or returning with their holds full.

The Carol Jean begins each day in Old Harbor, as does Paul. “I married an island girl, so now I live full time on the island,” he says. In 2008, Paul wed his most perfect mate, the hysterically entertaining, wiry-haired Cindy Lasser. Successful captains are often low-key characters; they share a focus on the sea, for steady is the best course when you’re responsible for precious cargos and people’s lives. Paul Svenevik, The Captain, has plotted the best course, with a love of life and a love of the sea.

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