More often than not when we think about freight logistics and physical distribution, the images that come to mind are ocean container ships, 18-wheelers on interstate highways, or trains hauling double-stacked containers across the continent. But getting goods to the end of the line often requires something quite different.
A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to spend a few days on Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts. During our last day on the island, we spent a leisurely lunch at the Lookout Tavern overlooking the Steamship Authority's loading dock in Oak Bluffs.
I imagine that when most people think of the ferries that move between the mainland and the island, they picture the large passenger vessels crowded with tourists that are often featured in films and news stories on Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket. But while sitting on the restaurant porch, I particularly enjoyed watching the process of loading one of the smaller freight vessels that serve the island.
The Steamship Authority, which operates the ferries that serve Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket and bills itself as "the lifeline to the Islands," has a couple of vessels that specialize in carrying trucks.
What I found intriguing was the various skill levels demonstrated by the truck drivers in backing onto the vessel (not to mention the skilled ferry pilot who backed effortlessly into the dock). While the large ferries open at both ends and allow drivers to pull straight on and straight off, these smaller freight ferries require the large rigs to back up a narrow ramp onto the shifting deck. One driver, handling double trailers, took a good 10 minutes and several attempts to get in position to move up the ramp safely. He was followed by a UPS 18-wheeler, whose driver maneuvered up the ramp as naturally as an auto driver might back into a space at the mall. Impressive.
The freight vessels (for some reason the Steamship Authority puts "freight" in quotes on its website) will also take cars, and I had backed my undersized Civic onto one of these on the way over. I found that challenging enough, so my hat is off to the drivers who regularly maneuver their tractor-trailers or straight trucks safely on board.
This process goes on several times a day and is part of a long-lived routine that ensures the Islands' businesses have the food, drink, clothing, building materials, and tourist tchotchkes they need. And, of course, there are hundreds or even thousands of locations around the nation that present comparable logistics challenges—islands, mountain communities, towns in the hinterlands—all part of a network of carriers and workers that deliver the goods and make this an endlessly interesting business.