Ferries head to Fire Island from the Sayville Ferry Terminal...

Ferries head to Fire Island from the Sayville Ferry Terminal a few days before Labor Day 2021.  Credit: James Carbone

Great South Bay ferry and water taxi captains have had a better summer this year than they had in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic made for anything but smooth sailing.

But ferry company owners said this year they have faced headwinds from an old nemesis: bad weather.

"Last year COVID defeated us, and this year Mother Nature defeated us," Sayville Ferry Service owner Ken Stein said Monday, after another overcast weekend depressed business on the company’s Cherry Grove, Sailors Haven, Water Island and Fire Island Pines ferries. "You can’t compete against those two things."

Last year’s season, when COVID-19 restrictions lowered ridership and sharply reduced revenues, was the worst ever for the bay’s ferry companies. Ridership was less than half of boat capacity on Memorial Day weekend last year, and didn’t improve the rest of the summer.

This year, ferry riders were mostly allowed to ride without masks and without social distancing measures put in place last year. After canceling some trips in 2020 due to low demand, the ferry companies went back to full service this year and were fully staffed, owners said.

Ferry owners said it’s too soon to estimate this season’s total revenues. They can only say that this year’s take is expected to show a substantial improvement over summer 2020.

"Anything was better than last year," said Dave Anderson, general manager of Fire Island Ferries in Bay Shore. "The weather didn’t cooperate with us this year, but we did better."

After a miserable Memorial Day weekend — "basically, we had a three-day nor’easter," said Robert Maag of H20 Limo, a Sayville-based water taxi service — business picked up in June, when warm temperatures, sunny skies and a public eager to shake off the COVID blues led to full boats most of the month.

"People were out and about a lot more this year," Maag said. "This year you could see the people coming out in droves."

But drenching rains and strong winds spun off by Tropical Storm Elsa ruined the July 4th weekend, and Tropical Storm Henri wiped out most of the Aug. 21-22 weekend, ferry owners said.

"Even today, we still haven’t put together a weekend of Friday, Saturday, Sunday where we had good weather all three days," Anderson said.

Stephanie Sherman, owner of Patchogue-based Davis Park Ferry, said the region’s fickle weather seemed to discourage some passengers.

"Some days it was beautiful on Davis Park, but it was cloudy and crummy over here [in Patchogue]," she said. "It was very frustrating."

The Labor Day weekend seems promising: The forecast calls for a mix of sun and clouds Friday through Monday.

Stein said that after decades of working in the ferry business, he’s learned to adapt to forces that are out of his control. That helped his business survive the pandemic, and it helped him carry on through this muggy summer.

"You can’t get upset about it, you can’t get depressed and think you did anything wrong," Stein said. "You just have to accept it."

ON THE WATER

Ferries and water taxis that carry passengers on the Great South Bay operate under licenses granted by Suffolk County. These are the companies and the communities they serve:

Davis Park Ferry, Patchogue

Davis Park, Watch Hill

Fire Island Ferries, Bay Shore

Atlantique, Dunewood, Fair Harbor, Kismet, Ocean Bay Park, Ocean Beach, Saltaire, Seaview

H20 Limo (water taxi), Sayville

On-demand service at 11 Fire Island communities from Watch Hill to the Fire Island Lighthouse, and cross-bay service to five stops on the mainland

Sayville Ferry Service, Sayville

Cherry Grove, Fire Island Pines, Sailors Haven, Water Island

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