Updated February 19 at 5:19pm

Fast ferry service in high gear

Justin Sayles

When people think of Martha’s Vineyard, they think of Massachusetts, says Charles Donadio Jr. But with his company, Vineyard Fast Ferry, Donadio is aiming to shift some of that thinking to the Ocean State.

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Fast ferry service in high gear

Vineyard Fast Ferry
Owner: Charles A. Donadio Jr.
Type of business: Ferry service
Location: Quonset Point, North Kingstown
Contact: (401) 295-4040, www.vineyardfastferry.com
Employees: 50 during peak season
Year established: 2003
Annual Sales: WND
Vineyard-Quonset operation prepares for summer season, eyes expansion

When people think of Martha’s Vineyard, they think of Massachusetts, says Charles Donadio Jr. But with his company, Vineyard Fast Ferry, Donadio is aiming to shift some of that thinking to the Ocean State.

Going into its fourth season, Vineyard Fast Ferry has provided travelers with a fast way to get to the tourist hot spot from Rhode Island. Based at Quonset Point in North Kingstown, Vineyard Fast Ferry boasts a 90-minute trip to the island – just over half as long as it would take on a normal ferry.

The fast ferry travels at about 33 knots, or 40 miles per hour, Donadio said; a normal ferry moves at about 15 knots.

The speed, coupled with targeted marketing, has drawn travelers from all over the country, Donadio said. And with more than 2 million tourists visiting Martha’s Vineyard each summer, it’s starting to pay off.

In 2005, the company spent nearly $130,000 in advertising. Only about $20,000 was geared toward Rhode Island residents. Mostly, Donadio said, the company has tried to attract people from other eastern states.

But last year, Vineyard Fast Ferry drew cars with license plates from 38 different states. So far in 2006, the company has booked travelers from Great Britain, Brazil and Switzerland.

All of those people would have normally driven through or not even thought of Rhode Island, Donadio said. Instead, the tourists are getting a chance to visit Rhode Island en route to the island.

(Though Donadio would not specify how many people traveled on Vineyard Fast Ferry in 2005, he said it has grown in each year of its operation.)

“We’re educating people and they’re becoming aware that when you travel to Martha’s Vineyard you can come through T.F. Green Airport, go down through Narragansett Bay and see our coastline,” Donadio said.

Vineyard Fast Ferry is Donadio’s second venture into the ferry business. In 1998, a fresh-out-of-college Donadio purchased Island High-Speed Ferry, a ferry trip that provided travelers with an efficient means of traveling to Block Island.

In 2002, he sold the business and began purchasing an aquaculture firm that unsuccessfully attempted to raise winter flounder.

He began working with the R.I. Economic Development Corporation to create Vineyard Fast Ferry, a company that he said he plans to grow rather than sell.

Despite the potential competition, Donadio said he is not trying to pull tourists out of Rhode Island. Vineyard Fast Ferry’s round trip costs a person $69 – more than double what it would cost to take the high-speed ferry to Block Island.

“Rhode Islanders aren’t typically our clientele,” he said. “We do get Rhode Island people riding the boat on a day-trip basis, but that’s less than 10 percent of our market. Most of the people are from out of the state that have plans to go to Martha’s Vineyard.”

This year, Donadio is also launching a second route that will allow people to see Rhode Island’s bay. The 90-minute trip, dubbed the Jewels of the Bay Lighthouse Cruise, will take people on a tour of nine lighthouses, 10 islands and Fort Adams in Newport, among other spots. The tour, narrated by local historian Arthur Strauss, is being launched after a successful test run last year, when 80 buses from all around New England brought people to the area.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind, unique cruise,” Donadio said. “You can’t really get to see all of those lighthouses if you’re on a slower boat – it would take you four or five hours.”

Donadio also looks to make other improvements to the company in coming years. In an interview last week, he spoke about breaking ground on a new facility and building a new dock in the future.

But with the season kicking off two weeks ago on Memorial Day weekend, Donadio is in full swing right now, making constant improvements to the facility and meeting with vendors.

And for all of his work, Donadio has gotten very little play out of his company as of late. A water enthusiast, Donadio said that he has not gone to Martha’s Vineyard for leisure in nearly a year and a half.

“I’m so busy during the season that I haven’t actually gotten the opportunity to go over there and relax,” he said. “It’s always meeting with the [local elected officials] or meeting the harbor master – it’s either business, or I’m working.”


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