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.
"Anytime you get young people and a lot of money, you see drugs," Macomber said.
The grueling schedule pulled them away from shore for weeks, with only a few days on land in between.
It was a young man's game, and they didn't want to do it anymore. They both wished they could find a job on the water where they could work and still come home every night.
"Once you work on the water, you don't want to work on land," Vance said.
Macomber started working for the ferry in the summer and went back to fishing in the offseason until he was offered a permanent job. He has worked for the ferry 24 years.
He said the most memorable event for him was the Escape the Cape Triathlon held last June, in which 1,000 athletes jumped off the ferry to swim to shore for the start of the race.
"I spent my entire career trying to keep people on the boat, and had 1,000 jump off," he said.
Vance remembers something from the start of his career — an 18-wheeler's brakes released and pushed a Volkswagen Rabbit into the bay, along with a poodle inside.
"Crew went down, rescued the poodle, lost the Rabbit," he said.
Numerous attempts preceded today's ferry, and all failed for one reason or another: bureaucratic mistakes, bankruptcy, sinking ships. In Lewes, local businessman and resident Paul Carpenter started campaigning for a ferry in the 1920s. It took almost 40 years to see his efforts realized.
A half-century ago, things finally lined up at exactly the right time — the menhaden fishing industry was shutting down in Lewes. Lewes Historical Society Executive Director Mike DiPaolo said Lewes, then a "blue-collar" town, was trying to figure out what it would become.
"In the early '60s, there were a lot of things coming and going," DiPaolo said. "It's kind of like a teenager: 'What are we gonna be?'"
The ferry created jobs for the town, which DiPaolo said had a hard time embracing a tourism-based economy.
"There were plans to have Cape Henlopen Park become a heavy industrial center," DiPaolo said. "We'd be a vastly different place."
In 1962, the Lewes Historical Society was founded, and Cape Henlopen State Park opened in October 1964. The society, the park and the ferry became the foundation of Lewes' tourism industry.
Lifelong Lewes resident and historian Hazel Brittingham, 86, remembers the change.
"One thing stops and there is a cycle, something else seems to come in," she said.
Ruth Macintire was there on July 1, 1964, to take the first trip out of Lewes.
"I thought it was a disaster," Macintire said. "They simply weren't ready to start."
The first day of operation also included the first accident; trying to dock the ship in Lewes, a captain got a propeller stuck on a cable below the water, delaying the trip, according to "A Ferry Tale," written by former Delaware River and Bridge Authority Executive Director William Miller.
"We were there quite a while waiting to get home," Macintire said.
A poor first impression didn't stop her from returning, though.
"It was a great thing to entertain you, watching people getting on and off the ferry," she said.
In 1974, three new vessels were commissioned to replace the old fleet, and two additional vessels were added throughout the years.
Heath Gehrke, director of ferry operations for the authority, said passenger traffic peaked in 1997 at 1.2 million, and vehicle traffic peaked in 1998 at more than 400,000.
Since then, ridership has steadily declined. Financial reports indicate a 25 percent drop in ridership and revenue between 2002 and 2012, while expenses have gone up about 2 percent. Because of the decline in ridership, the MV Cape May was sold in July.2 comments on this story
Gehrke said the authority has been making changes to the ferries and terminal to modernize the spaces and bring in new customers. The authority has added more comfortable "airline style" seating to three of the ferries. This fall, two glass walkways leading to the ferry were completed.
Gehrke said the ferry carries some commercial traffic and commuters, but many people take the ferry just because it's fun.
"We have some of the best sunsets on the Eastern seaboard," he said.
Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., http://www.delmarvanow.com/