When Kathi Gemma thinks of Orient, she thinks of rushing to the Cross Sound Ferry dock in Orient Point with just seconds to spare before it leaves for New England without her.
Gemma, 63, of Providence, R.I., spends a week every summer with a friend on Fire Island. Her time away begins and ends on the ferry, and it plays as much of a role in her memories of vacationing as any other part of her week.
“I always get to the ferry with literally 30 seconds to spare,” she said as she rode back toward her home Tuesday. “Last year, they held the ferry for me, which was really very nice. There was a girl standing on the dock and she was literally holding the gates open.”
For many of the thousands of riders the Cross Sound Ferry has each day, it is the only connection they have to Orient and their portal to the scenic North Fork and beyond.
The Cross Sound Ferry is more than just a fleet of high-powered, high-capacity vessels, said Stanley Mickus, director of marketing and public affairs for the company. It is a way to connect one shore to another, businesses to their wares, and family and friends.
“It’s amazing how the service has evolved,” said Mickus, 44, who started working as a deckhand on the ferry when he was 15. “But the thing that’s stayed the same is that it has always been there.”
Ferry service began as an extension of the Long Island Rail Road in the mid-1800s, with steamboats from New York City to the East End of Long Island and Stonington, Conn.
In 1975, the Connecticut-based Wronoski family bought the business, calling it Cross Sound Ferry, and built it up to what the company is today.
Though based in Connecticut, Cross Sound Ferry has always been a part of the fabric of the Orient community, offering a large source of tax revenue in the small hamlet and as one of the largest employers, Mickus said.
Andy Binkowski, the Cross Sound Ferry manager based in Orient Point and also the president of the North Fork Chamber of Commerce, said all of his employees come from the North Fork, many starting while they are in high school and working for the ferry for years.
In addition, he said Cross Sound Ferry puts a lot back into the community. For example, every July, it operates a “Fireworks Cruise,” and all of the money raised from the event is dispersed to organizations on the North Fork, including student scholarships.
Binkowski, who lives in Orient, said the ferry is important not only to the economy of Orient, but to the entire North Fork -- though some say the ferry contributes to congestion on the roadways.
“The North Fork is a tourist attraction even if some people wish it weren’t,” he said. “We bring people to the North Fork and they spend their dollars at the local farm stands, restaurants and other shops. And we also allow a lot of people on the North Fork to leave without having to drive through the city and other places.”
Mickus said that throughout its history, the ferry -- and the steamboats before it -- have always been about more than just functionality, and ferry rider Gemma agreed.
She sat in a booth inside the ferry on Tuesday, and though her laptop was on the table in front of her, she kept it zipped tightly in its carrying case.
She’d rather look out the window and enjoy the last hour and 20 minutes of her vacation before docking on shore.
“For me, the ferry is a little buffer period when you get to decompress,” she said. “When you get on the ferry, you’ve got nothing to do but relax and look at the water.”