Plans are being made to dredge part of the channel between North Haven and Shelter Island next year, in an attempt to deal with shifting sediment that threatens to make the water too shallow for the South Ferry to safely move cars and trucks.
The ferry is the only way to get from the part of State Route 114 that runs across Shelter Island to the section of the road that runs south from North Haven to East Hampton.
"If we have the wind coming from the west at 40 miles an hour for three days, we'd have a real problem," ferry operator Cliff Clark said.
A year might seem a long time to wait but, Clark said, there has not been a lot of dredging of the waterway in the past. "It hasn't been dredged since my family started running the ferry," Clark said.
Their first ferry was actually a rowboat. Samuel Clark used it to cross the water in the 1790s. It was replaced by a barge that could carry a horse and carriage. The first real double-ended ferry went into service in 1913, and could transport a half-dozen Model T Fords across the half-mile-wide channel.
State Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said $750,000 in state transportation department funds has been committed to cover about half the cost of the dredging project, which should begin in the fall of 2014. Suffolk County is expected to provide the rest of the funds.
Because of environmental restrictions, dredging is normally done between October and January. Before the work can begin, the Long Island Power Authority and other utilities with underwater cables need to precisely mark their locations to prevent accidental damage.
It normally takes the ferry 10 to 15 minutes to make the short crossing. People traveling from East Hampton to Southold can save three hours or more by using the two ferries that link Shelter Island to the North and South forks.