Navigating a steady lifeline between communities

Cindy Alsop– Captain, Lake Champlain Ferry, Grand Isle, VT

Feature | Grand Isle, VT | 17 June 2021
Captain Cindy Alsop has worked on Lake Champlain for almost 44 years. The engineers and sailors that she grew-up with near Lake Champlain inspired her to embark on this profession. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
The open and majestic blue waters of Lake Champlain is a premier destination for people who love to sail, paddle, row and motor all manner of watercraft. For ferryboat Captain Cindy Alsop this is a typical day at work.

“I grew up a mile from the Grand Isle ferry dock, on a dairy farm,” says Captain Cindy a native of Vermont’s South Hero Island, which is the largest island in Lake Champlain.

“My dad was friends with retired Captains and Engineers and they all shared a mutual interest in diesel engines. So, as a kid I grew up knowing these people. So inevitably when I became old enough to get a job, that was my summer job,” she says of her upbringing that would lead to a 44-year career.

Today, Captain Cindy is the senior captain working at the Lake Champlain Transportation Company (LCT) and she is also the first woman on the lake to earn her 500-ton master’s license.

“I was encouraged that if I were to stay working for the ferry I would get a license. So I did,” Cindy says proudly, as she steers the MV Cumberland, across the lake on what is a beautiful summer day. “Summer we have nice weather, but winter is a different story.”
The Champlain Ferry service between Grand Isle, Vermont and Plattsburgh, New York is an economic and social lifeline between these communities. Piloting a ferryboat that runs seven days-a-week 24 hours a day requires excellent communication between the crew on the ship and at the slip. ILO Photos/ John Isaac

“This lake will freeze completely, and we will be running in a channel, so we can keep the ice broken up. But while the ice is forming that’s our biggest problem,” she emphasizes with caution, indicating how the weather can totally affect the nature of her work on her daily crossings between Vermont and New York.

LCT, a privately-owned company has three ferryboat crossings that run between Vermont and New York, 24hrs a day, 7 days a week. Each captain completes an 8-hour shift before handing over to the next.

“I came on at 3pm, so I am going to work until 11 tonight, and then another crew will come on,” Cindy says while also noting that she “has a crew of four” working with her. “We have a captain in the pilot house, two deckhands who are in charge of the main deck and the passenger, and then one guy in the engine room.”

When asked about the skills needed in order to perform her job, Cindy says, “awareness of what’s going on around them,” “coming on the deck, as I did as an entry level,” and “good interpersonal skills and communication,” are all significant skills needed.

Cindy says that they tend to get vacationers, and a lot of repeat customers during the week, so making sure to keep and foster those relationships is important. She repeatedly highlights “situational awareness” which she says is important to figure out the “weight distribution” of vehicles on board which she describes as a “jigsaw puzzle” task and one which requires attention to detail. Additionally, one also has to “keep track of how many cars and passengers” are on board as a safety precaution, for which acute precision is required.

The ferries often carry heavy cargo across the lake that helps save time and transportation costs. “We bring everything across. We’ve had fire trucks, log trucks, cranes, ambulances, disassembled airplanes, trucks you name it,” says Alsop.

Technology is essential for the smooth operation of the MV Cumberland. However, Captain Cindy is not sure artificial intelligence alone can perform her job efficiently. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
The crossing time is approximately 14 minutes as compared to a trip by car over the bridge which “would be about a 30-mile drive one way.” “Nobody wants to sit in traffic, they want to keep moving, so this crossing with a three-boat service is gold,” Alsop says with a big smile.

Captain Cindy says that technology is “essential for the radar” she relies on “to get into the slip” which is critical for when she docks her ferry. In terms of whether artificial intelligence could perform a job like hers in the future Cindy says, “it probably can,” but she is unsure of how effectively or reliably it could. “Can artificial intelligence put you in blind with the weather? That part I don’t know,” she answers.

As the captain of a ferryboat, Cindy has to always be alert, stay in tune and aware of her surroundings while crossing the lake. Her skills and ability to multitask, while paying attention to all the necessary details she has to for a safe crossing, are clear from watching her steer the boat carefully while managing her crew and all the other technology on board.

As the sun reaches its apex above the sapphire waters of Lake Champlain, Captain Cindy reflects on her long career traversing the lake and says there is only one word that truly describe her work: Adventurous.