JAMESTOWN — The Jamestown-Scotland Ferry is a lot of things to a lot of people.
For fans of classic country music, they probably think of the song most notably recorded by Tanya Tucker in 1972. With a title like “Jamestown Ferry” one might assume the song would be filled with references to the ferry and the surrounding area. No such luck. Tanya just laments that her lover left her by way of the ferry, over and over again for 10 verses. Frankly, she is better off without him.
For people who are not into classic country music and live on one side of the James River and work on the other, the ferry offers a 15-minute respite during the commute. It is a chance to sit and steel yourself for the day ahead or wind down before you get home. A break which would make any landlocked commuter green with envy.
For others who call Hampton Roads their home, it is one of several best kept secrets for getting around southeast Virginia. When there is time to kill and the thought Interstate 64 corridor and the bridge tunnels is just too much to bear, taking the ferry can add a guaranteed bright spot to any day trip.
While taking the ferry might not be the quickest mode of travel, it is hard to be upset over lost time with the scenery that each voyage that the four ferries provides. On a day when the sun is out even just a little, it is hard not to be spellbound by the nature that surrounds the vessel.
With so much to look at, one might be forgiven for not noticing the fact that they and their automobile are floating on an modern marvel, an aquatic workhorse even, that is being run by professional mariners who have logged so many combined hours honing their craft. They are part of a proud tradition dating back almost a century.
The Jamestown-Scotland Ferry service was first established as a private enterprise in 1925. In February of that year, the ferryboat “Captain John Smith” crossed the James River with an automobile for the first time. The ship was 60-feet long and capable of carrying up to 16 Model-T Fords.
Compare that with the newest ferry, The Powhatan, built in 2019, which can carry up to 70-cars as she and the four other vessels of similar size transport around 936,000 vehicles every year.
The ferry remained privately owned until 1945 when it was taken over by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). In that time, different ferries and their crews have come and gone, but the mission of getting people from here to there and back again safely has remained very much the same.
These days, the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry has around 90 VDOT employees that run the four vessels in its stable, the Surry, Williamsburg, Pocahontas and Powhatan.
One of the longest tenured mariners with the ferry is James River Facility Manager, Wes Ripley. Wes started out as a mate on the ferry in 1987. Over the last three decades he has worked his way through the ranks, from mate to captain to operations manager and finally to his current roll overseeing the entire show.
Over the years, Wes says that outside of post-9/11 security protocols, not much has changed with the ferry, which is the only ferry that operate 24/7 in the Commonwealth.
“In the time that I’ve been here there has been a lot more emphasis on training and safety,” Wes says. “We do a lot of drills which has been proven useful as we have rescued a number of people and dogs.”
The training has been ramped up so much that when the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) comes to the James River facility to inspect the boats and equipment. It is impressive how far the ferry operator training has come over the last few decades.
There are several different training boxes for the crews to check, as laid out by federal mandate and VDOT. Boat and crew drills, CPR, first aid, and fire extinguisher training. However, Wes and company like to take it a step further.
“If you have a fire on the boat, you are the fire department,” Wes noted. “One of our guys went to a garage sale and bought a fog machine. So we take that and put it in a confined space, get it really foggy and smoky and fight simulated fires.”
The crews on the ferries rotate among the ferries, each shift bringing them to a different boat and a different crew. When a vessel runs, it has at least four crew members. A captain, an engineer and two to three deckhands who are charged with getting vehicles and people on and off the boat safely.
All the jobs on board are demanding in their own way. For a captain on the James River, just getting to the position is not for the faint of heart. The amount of time spent studying for a captains license, while also getting the requisite experience is daunting.
For Captain Reginald “Reggie” Kirton, it took several years working his way around different parts of the nautical food chain. Before coming to the Jamestown Ferry, Reggie cut his teeth on tugboats and later on the Elizabeth River Ferry, which runs between downtown Norfolk and Portsmouth.
“This ferry requires a 1,600 ton license and that takes time. There is quite a bit of testing that goes along with it,” Reggie remembers. ” After you pass that, legally on paper you can drive a ferry, but that doesn’t mean you have the skills to do it. When I really knew I was serious about becoming a captain, I would work as a mate, load the boat and run up to the pilot house and drive across. I did that for years until everyone knew that I could run this boat.”
Reggie went on to say that with all his hours at the helm, he feels more comfortable docking the 1,600 ton behemoths than he does driving his own car.
For as skilled as the captains are at handling their massive charges, they rely on their assembled team, perhaps none more than the chief engineer. The engineer not only maintains the machinery below deck, but they also have the ability to control the the speed of the boat.
“People don’t often know they are down there,” Reggie said of his engineers. “I can’t run the boat without an engineer. I can’t run the boat without everyone on here, but he and I have to be here. So there is a lot of trust there.”
The deckhands spend most of their time outside, in the heat, cold, rain and or snow, all the while dealing with the general public. Once they get all the cars and people on board and the ship ready to disembark, they might be fortunate enough to get a break from the elements to the relative warmth or air condition of the pilot house or engine room. Though it should be noted that at least one of the deckhands has to be a helmsman, who in case of an emergency is capable of docking the ferry if the captain is incapacitated.
All told, a crew averages around 10-12 trips in one shift, maybe more if they are at peak hours during the weekend or on holidays.
Going forward, VDOT is planning on putting more money into the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry operation. In the near future they looking to install cameras along the bridges leading up to the ferries, so that drivers can see in real time how long they can expect to wait for a ride across the river.
For those who have never had the privilege of making a crossing, General wait times can vary from 15-30 minutes. You can avoid longer wait by avoiding peak traffic times of 6-8 a.m. and 4-6 p.m., Monday through Friday. During the summer months the wait could be longer depending upon events taking place in the area. For more information, check out the VDOT website.
Despite the rigorous natures of the job, the constant schedule and battling the heat, cold, bugs and water current; there seemed to be one common thing ferry operators appreciated about their job, and that is the view.
Or to quote Wes, “You have the best office in the world in the pilot house of the ferry.”