A life on the waterFerryboat captain for decades has spent days running from Marblehead to Kelleys Island and back

The idea was simple enough: capture a typical day in the life of a ship’s captain.

Well, at least in the cast of Don “Donnie” Huntley, there really is no such thing as a typical day.

One day he could be captaining a towboat. On another, he could be delivering a yacht too big for the roads. 

And then, as he has done for years, he could be steering a car ferry between Marblehead and Kelleys Island. 

“I’m like a utility outfielder,” says the amiable Huron resident during a recent phone interview. “I go wherever I’m needed.”

Ferryboat captain Don "Donnie" Huntley says this photo is from 1996, when, he says, "I thought I was cool and about 40 pounds lighter." He jokes that this was his "Tom Cruise" or "Captain Cool" look, thanks to the aviator sunglasses. (Photo/Courtesy of Don Huntley)Huntley grew up in Sandusky, a “good Catholic boy” who attended St. Mary’s Central Catholic High School. And you’d better believe he grew up boating, thanks in part to a father, the late Donald Huntley, who in the mid-’70s was commodore of the Sandusky Yacht Club and commander of Sandusky Power Squadron.

“I was born in November of ’72, and I was probably on my first boat of April or May ’73 going to my grandparents’ house on Kelleys Island,” he says.

Years later, he’d be a junior sailor at the Sandusky Sailing Club and would sail collegiately, for Bowling Green State University.

You’d be forgiven for assuming Huntley knew from an early age how he’d one day make a living.

“My full intent was to take over my family's dry-cleaning business in Sandusky,” he says. “I had no intention of becoming a captain.”

The pieces did eventually fall into place, in part thanks to folks with boating companies first suggesting he work as a deckhand for a summer and later nudging him to get his captain’s license. 

“And I’m like, ‘Huh,’” he recalls. “Never thought about it. I’ve been on boats my entire life. Had my own boat – had a little Boston Whaler – and grew up running around in that.

“And it was just, like, ‘OK.”

As a young man, he worked for the dry-cleaning-and-uniforms operation, Huntley Uniforms, during the day and ran ferry boats at night – hours and hours of work per week.

“I wasn’t dating anybody,” he says. “I loved it. I wanted to be on the water and I wanted to buy a house.”

It still took awhile for him to say goodbye to the family business – “My dad and I decided we were better off being friends than business partners,” he says – and he went to work for the since-closed Neuman Boat Line.

Huntley has worked for Kelleys Island Ferry for more than two decades. (Photo/Courtesy of Don Huntley)He’s worked for several companies over the years, including Kelleys Island Ferry, where he’s been a part-timer but a long-timer, having worked there for just over two decades. 

“My rule is I don’t take hours from the full-time guys,” he says. “You know, if they want the overtime, I don’t take it.”

He says he runs one of the company’s three ferries many a Saturday when the weather’s nice, getting up a couple of hours before the 8 a.m. jaunt off the mainland, the beginning of what can at most be 12 hours of work – about 10 to 12 round trips. 

When he gets to the craft, it’s right into the engine room.

“People always ask, ‘What are you doing when you’re down there?’” Huntley says. It’s your senses: You’re looking; you’re smelling everything. Everything has their own smell – each boat has their own smell.

“You’re making sure belts are good, checking oil, checking the fuel level,” he continues. “[You’re] just making sure the boat’s prepped and you’re not going to have any issues on the day.”

Once they’re off, a lot of the job is, along with keeping people safe, keeping them happy – at least as much as possible.

“The tough thing is you want to keep a schedule, but you also have customer service at the same time,” Huntley says. “Maybe you only have 100 passengers on and there’s 10 (more) people walking down the dock as you’re loading, but you’ve got the other ferry boat creeping up behind you, and you don’t want to hold them up, so you leave people.

“You don’t want to … but you’ve got to keep moving.” 

His favorite part of the job, he says, is interacting with people, be it the myriad friends he’s made over the years, the little kid who’s excited to meet a real-life boat captain or Northeast Ohio celebrities such as former Cleveland Browns star quarterback Bernie Kosar. Speaking of pro football players, Huntley and his crew once helped legendary Detroit Lions running Barry Sanders hide from autograph seekers in the ship’s pilot house. They, of course, asked him to sign the captain’s log.

Asked his least favorite, Huntley doesn’t hesitate: bad weather.

He describes one colorful way crew members would talk about what kind of weather day it is. 

“You’d say, it was a ‘one-cheek’ or a ‘two-cheek.’ Well, ‘two-cheek’ means you can keep your whole butt on the seat, or ‘one-cheek’ was you had to keep one foot on the ground and one cheek on the seat to keep your balance as you were going across the lake.”

Of course, strong winds are no joke.

“The boat can always handle it; it is unloading and loading the people that are the dangerous portions of the job. Never had anything happen – I’m knocking on wood – in my career, but that’s the dangerous part of the job.”

Sometimes, of course, the weather makes a trip too risky. Being able to warn people ahead of time via social media that travel may be restricted on a certain day has curbed a lot of issues, but he has seen his share of anger over the years.

“Hey, if I make the landing, I’m the good guy and the hero,” he says. “If I don’t make the landing, I’m going to be the guy in the newspaper.” 

People have let him know when he’s the bad guy by using “every name in the book,” citing one that starts with the letter A and another that begins with P. 

“And these are people I know,” he says. 

Speaking of words that begin with the letter A, it’s time to bring up a big one: alcohol. After all, many folks who go off to the islands like to have a drink or two … or 10. 

First, you have to worry about drinking leading to a fight on the boat. That’s a more serious problem for the combatants, as in the days before 9/11, a ferry fell under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he says, but now sees oversight by the Department of Homeland Security.

“People don’t realize that if you impede the progress of that boat, we can make your life miserable,” he says. “It’s not like Sandusky PD’s gonna come down; if it’s bad enough, it’s federal. … It’s a dedicated route.”

Mostly, though, the drinkers become the sleepers, with Huntley telling tales of occasionally missing a passed-out passenger who awakes to the surprise of heading back to where he thought he’d just left. 

And then there’s, well … you know what can happen when you’re talking about a cocktail of booze, heat and seasickness. He says it’s nothing to be too embarrassed about, but try to do what you have to over the side of the boat. 

“You’re gonna laugh, but I don’t have a great stomach, even though I don’t get seasick. If I smell vomit … . You don’t want the captain throwing up.”

More than once it’s been bad enough that he and the crew, upon docking, have used fire hoses to get everything off the boat quickly and decidedly.

More seriously, his words to those young people who, like him, are drawn to the water to take boat safety seriously. He’s seen some things on the towing side of his work that are cautionary tales. 

“Learn the rules of the road,” he says. “It’s a great sport – I would recommend it to anyone.

“It taught me responsibility.”