After 50 years, Del.-NJ ferry runs like clockwork

By Rachael Pacella

The Daily Times

Published: Saturday, Jan. 18 2014 8:00 p.m. MST

Captain Robert Vance is photographed on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry on Jan. 8, 2014 near Cape May, N.J. Vance has been with the Cape May-Lewes Ferry for thirty years. For a half-century, the ferry has beaten “driving around” virtually every day, stopping only for ice, hurricanes and an employee strike back in 1964.

The Daily Times, Joe Lamberti, Associated Press

LEWES, Del. — The first trip on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, July 1, 1964, was on a day so hot the pavement would burn the soles of your feet.

That heat feels far away Jan. 8, 2014, a day after bitter cold engulfed much of the U.S. The ferry is mostly empty, with just 27 passengers, 16 cars and 12 employees headed from Lewes, Del., to Cape May, N.J., on the 9:15 a.m. departure.

Upon arrival in Cape May, the ferry is surrounded by ice that's been blown into the dock by wind and piled up around the shoreline. It's not a problem — it hasn't been cold long enough. Instead, the ice has broken into slushy sheets the ferry carves through easily.

In less than 25 minutes, the crew ushers the passengers off and gets 78 new passengers and 44 cars on board. The ramp between the ferry and shore lifts, big ropes are pulled up, a bell sounds, a horn goes off and with one big lurch, the ferry moves forward, headed back to Lewes.

This day, the ferry celebrates its 43 millionth passenger, Fran Kisby and her husband, Bill, from Millsboro. They were on the ship traveling for business, which Bill Kisby said they do a couple times a month.

"Certainly beats driving around," he said.

For a half-century, the ferry has beaten "driving around" virtually every day, stopping only for ice, hurricanes and an employee strike back in 1964.

Going into its 50th year of operation, the ferry is up against declining ridership, but Heath Gehrke, director of ferry operations for the Delaware River and Bay Authority, hopes to bring back the excitement.

"We're at a point in time where we feel like we want to celebrate that we've lasted 50 years," Gehrke said. "We play an important part in the community."

On a busy day in the summer, the MV Cape Henlopen, one of four boats used by the system, can hold as many as 100 cars and an average of 220 passengers per trip. But it wasn't busy Jan. 8: the vessel carries 320 passengers throughout the day, and 181 cars —less than would be expected on one round trip in the summer.

The crew starts arriving to prep the boat at 6:30 a.m. for a 7:30 a.m. departure. The engineers start the ship's two 2,000-horsepower engines, which burn 100 gallons of diesel fuel an hour. The crew takes the boat off shore power by disconnecting a cord as thick as a softball, the controls are switched from the main engine room to the bridge, lines are removed and passengers are loaded.

Capt. Dave Macomber, the ship's pilot and second in command, directs drivers onto the boat, making sure the load is evenly distributed.

Capt. Robert Vance, first in command, is responsible for docking the vessel.

Both Vance, 54, and Macomber, 57, grew up in Cape May. Both can draw a map of local waters from memory and both were commercial fishermen before they started working at the ferry.

As a kid, Vance went down to the docks and fishermen would offer him $40 or $50 to unload the boat, working until he was done. One day, a spot opened up and he was in —it's that quick. You need to have your bags packed.

After Macomber graduated high school, he got a similar job.

"One night I got called, went down about midnight and worked 24 hours straight," Macomber said. When they settled up, his share was $1,000.

"My father cried," he said. It was as much money as he made in a month.

In fishing, there is a lot of money to be made if you're willing to work hard to make it — both men said they made well over $100,000 a year.

But while they made a lot, the job wasn't as pleasant as working on a ferry. Sometimes, crew members would have addiction problems.

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