makes cover of
Kismet Star is born
many Long Island land-based contractors, the ferry transportation business
boasts several family owned operations. In Port Jefferson it’s the McAllisters.
Orient Point is the Rinowski’s. And eastern ports of Fire Island are served by
the Steins and the Shermans. So although the Mooney family of Fire Island
Ferries, Inc. may not be alone, they are quickly building the next Long
since 1948, there has been a Mooney on board or behind the wheel of a Fire
Island-bound ferry, starting with Edwin (Ed) Mooney, Jr. (father of Tim and
Michael) who began as a deckhand for the company just two months after the
ferry service was launched. Ed, together with two partners, bought Fire Island
Ferries in 1971, which interestingly enough, included a stipulation that forbid
owners from bringing other family members into the business. Perhaps this
explains why, by 1989, Ed would own Fire Island Ferries (FIF) outright and the
Mooney family dynasty would begin in earnest.
CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN Currently
at the helm of Fire Island Ferries is our cover subject, President Timothy E.
Mooney—a casual but savvy businessman sporting an early spring tan and an
even-keeled temperament (which seems to belie the “Captain Snake Wake” nickname
he earned in younger years). Tim is a leader in transportation…simply the type
without any roads. It is a difference made evident only by his work attire:
leather loafers, khaki shorts and a crisp, open-collared dress shirt. Even his
eyes are water-colored (be it more Caribbean blue than Great South Bay grey).
But don’t let the casual appearance fool you. This captain is a full-time
businessman and part-time bassist who’s continually charting a course to ensure
his family’s continued success.
IS THICKER THAN WATER Ed,
now officially retired and approaching 90, still shows up at the dock most
summer days to “oversee” the dynasty he began building nearly 50 years ago. It
is a right he has fully earned, according to Tim who now runs the business
together with his brother, coowner and Vice-President Michael.
of the construction man—works mainly behind the scenes, managing important
aspects such as dredging, bulk head and dock repair (using much of their own
dredging equipment). Tim, a licensed captain since 2008, has enjoyed his time
on the water, meeting and greeting the wide variety of passengers (and pets)
that Fire Island attracts. But these days, he has abandoned the wheel house,
spending most of his time on terra firma, overseeing and expanding business
SPEED AHEAD Last
year alone, Fire Island Ferries transported more than 1.1 million passengers to
and from eight western ports on the shore of an island which measures less than
10 square miles. An additional 110,000 travelers also use FIF’s water taxi
service (acquired in 2004) which provides private transportation and/or service
for those who need to travel along the island or before and after regularly scheduled
ferries. The taxi often carries home a full load of exhausted workers at the
end of a long night—everyone from kitchen cooks and wait staff, to bartenders
and band members—and has been unofficially dubbed “The death boat.”
you consider that the vast majority of the 1.1+ million travelers make the trip
between 7:00 am and 10:00 pm during a brief three-month span from Memorial Day
to Labor Day, you soon realize that kind of volume requires a substantial fleet
of floating vehicles, a far cry from the original ragtag assembly of surplus
military equipment and rumrunning boats used by FIF founders in the early days
after World War II. While discussing the current count (28) and capabilities of
his current fleet, a wry smile appears on Tim’s face, telling me there’s
something more. Two more to be exact. And thanks to Road Warriors June
publication date, Tim was willing to share some news which explained his
excitement. This May, just in time for the 2019 summer season, Fire Island
Ferries will welcome two vessels to their growing fleet including a new water
taxi, worth close to half a million dollars. But the true “pièce de résistance”
is the brand new 3.1 million dollar passenger ferry to be named “Isle of Fire”
(paying homage to one of the original Fire Island Ferries vessels) which was
custom built in Rhode Island.
in their fleet is only part of their business strategy. When the local
legislature controls passenger pricing (be sure to read “Navigating the
Regulatory Waters” below) you need to find other ways to increase.
and grow your business. And every ferry operator needs a land-based ferry
terminal. Or two, as in the case of FIF, who owns both Bay Shore terminals,
together with the adjacent pay-for-parking lots which are summertime gold for
same-day Fire Island visitors (“daytrippers”) who are the backbone of Tim’s
ferry business. For good measure, they also own the exclusive rights to four of
the seven Fire-Island terminals they service.
A LOAD OFF, FANNY Daytrippers
may be the bread and butter of their ferry business, but bagels and baggage are
nothing to sneeze at. While Tim-the-bassist and The Band may encourage
listeners to “take a load off,” make no mistake that it’s only the song which
suggests you “take a load for free.” Timthe-owner will happily help you carry
your load, starting at around $6 a bag. And that baggage adds up… from booze
and bikes to building supplies and barbecues. Many businesses on Fire
Island are also regular freight customers, utilizing the service to bring
supplies and perishables to their restaurants and shops on a daily or weekly
basis. Part-time residents and long-term renters account for a piece of the
revenue as well, despite loading up heavily only once or twice a season. But
like the passengers they carry, the freight transported by FIF is often just as
unique, such as the million dollar piece of artwork made from non-recyclable
plastic bags. However, it’s the small things that make the biggest impact. A
Long Islander on vacation may live without their blow dryer, but don’t mess
with their bagels. Just ask Tim about the “bagel boat” which departs Bay Shore
promptly at 5:15 am packed to the gills with some of Long Island’s best bagels,
making their way to multiple Fire Island food stores and eateries, ensuring
that no visitors’ lox will ever be lonely.
BAROMETER FOR BUSINESS: HIGH PRESSURE PREFERRED Fire Island Ferries’ strongest
opponent and fiercest friend is one-in-the-same and belongs to neither
political party… she is Mother Nature. According to Tim, weather can have the
most dramatic impact on the ferry business, and it has nothing to do with
traversing rough waters. A warm, sunny summer will provide the greatest
increase in ridership, attracting more daytrippers, beach bunnies, bar hoppers,
and happy campers (literally). Unseasonably cold or rainy weather can dampen an
already short season and diminish profits just as quickly. Fewer beach-worthy
days will discourage sun worshippers and impromptu family outings. Renters will
likely have fewer houseguests while open air businesses and restaurants will
have fewer patrons, taking a toll on both ferry ridership and local businesses,
in turn reducing the need for additional freight services. So like all those
whose livelihoods revolve around water, Tim continually hopes for high pressure
with bright, sunny skies.
THE REGULATORY WATERS Water-based
transportation business faces additional challenges as well. Some say even
greater than those of their landbased counterparts. Regulations, requirements,
permits and licensing for Fire Island Ferries often involves the approval
and/or assistance of a multitude of municipalities and state agencies
including: • Towns of Islip and Brookhaven (the municipality which owns the
waters they travel on, and where their two Bay Shore terminals and related
parking areas are located) • Suffolk County (who technically owns the
shorelines where they operate and regulates fares) • Army Corps of Engineers
(for all things Fire Island-related which is part of the National Parks
Department) • Dept. of Environmental Conservation (who issues maintenance
permits for dredging and related work) • U.S. Coast Guard (responsible for
enforcing regulations for both operators and passengers on the water) • Environmental
Protection Agency and/or National Transportation Safety Board (which may come
into play in the event of an incident)
unlike our competitive bidding system where contractors can calculate and
incorporate these “costs of doing business” as part of their bid, it is the
Suffolk County Legislature that holds the power of pricing for ferry operators.
(Yes, you read it correctly). Although the ferry is privately owned and
operated, passenger fees must be approved by the Suffolk County Legislature.
That may explain why 2019 is the first time in four years that there has been
an increase (currently $21 for a daily round trip, a fair price for the scenic
30+ minute trip). The process for proving and presenting your case to the
legislature is long, so when something like fuel prices go out of control for
several months and raise operating costs dramatically, the situation is often
over by the time you get a chance to request an increase. It’s just part of
all these challenges, Tim seems at peace with the process. He believes the
legislature has been responsive when needed so the system works. He also claims
to maintain good working relationships with local leaders and the various
agencies, noting the particular importance of a strong relationship with the
Coast Guard, clearly respecting their authority and what they do to keep boats,
boaters and passengers safe. Tim’s biggest concern is the new minimum wage law,
one which is also shared by many business owners on Fire Island. With the large
majority of employees being young, inexperienced, seasonal workers, the impact
of such dramatic wage increases will be felt by all. Tim understands higher
wages for more experienced, full-time workers who are supporting families, etc.
However he takes issue with such high entry-level wages for young,
inexperienced, part-time workers, many who work only for a summer or two during
school and of whom the main requirement is to simply “show up”. It is an issue
that he will be monitoring closely this summer and one that may require him to
make another trip to the Suffolk County Legislature - sooner rather than later.
TIDES OF CHANGE While
one of Tim’s twins, Brittany, works in NYC for Michael Kors, his oldest
daughter, Kelley, headed west toward the waters of the Pacific and is currently
an investor in an 1865 silver mining town. But Tim and Mike —the second
generation of Mooney’s—continue to set a course for success, with the third
generation of Mooney’s already on board (literally and figuratively). Simply
head down to the docks and you’ll find Tim’s son, Brendan, hard at work helping
with parking and freight operations. Then hop on a ferry and keep an eye out
for Brittany’s twin sister, Morgan, who, by the tender age of 20 had earned her
license and has since taken her rightful place behind the wheel, in the
Captain’s chair. Tides, and times, may change. But for Fire Island Ferries, it
appears the Mooney legacy is here to stay and remains on course.
Favorite Fire Island port?
Q. Favorite time of day?
A. Early morning
sunrise with calm, flat waters.
Q. Favorite vessel in your fleet?
A. The new
“Isle of Fire”
Q. Favorite Fire Island “Fun Fact”?
A. The day after Labor Day
is known as “Tumbleweed Tuesday” because of how desolate the island becomes
just one day after the massive crowds and renters leave.
Q. Notable passengers
spotted on board FIF?
A. Uma Thurman on occasion and even Supreme Court Justice
Q. Rowdiest groups to ride the ferry?
A. Bachelorette parties,
believe it or not (Bachelor parties often pale in comparison)
Q. Most unusual
pet/animal you’ve transported?
A. I’ve seen a lot but a recent standout was a
dog dyed bright pink (below).
Q. Best part of your job?
A. The people you meet.
Q. Worst part of your job?
A. A few of the people you meet…
Q. Best & worst
part about working with family?
A. Getting to see them every day (good &
bad) and the fact that they are not afraid to tell you what’s on their minds
(again... good & bad)!
Q. Proudest accomplishment?
A. Raising four good
kids with my wife Jane.
Q. Biggest challenge ahead?
A. The weather (think
global climate change too). No amount of marketing can help you overcome bad