I stepped onto the deck of the Jacksonville Water Taxi feeling right proud of my deft maneuvering when a loud, “Welcome Aboard!” stopped me. It came from a fellow slouched in the first seat, who greeted me with a big goofy grin and bright eyes shaded in oversized sunglasses. I figured him to be just another passenger; he didn’t quite have that nautical snap. Multiple strands of Mardi Gras beads dangled around his neck, partially covering the logo of a white Jacksonville Arena T-shirt, at least four sizes too big for him. On his head he’d fixed a Jacksonville Suns ball cap in primary sunny yellow, turned backwards. If we went down, I don’t think he’d be much help. He moved with the staccato push-pull of someone with cerebral palsy; the fingers of his hands were twisted permanently into his palms, like he was holding a rope.
In sheer personality, though, he was plenty buoyant. And he endeavored to lift everyone around him, too. “This is the Love Boat. Not the Hate Boat,” the man declared. He had to shout to be heard over the boat engine, but I have a feeling he just likes to shout. “This is the Love Boat, not the Hate Boat,” he said again. When the boat stopped further down the Southbank, a couple disembarked and two women from San Antonio joined our passenger manifesto. “This is the Love Boat, not the Hate Boat,” the man shouted for the newcomers.
The city of Jacksonville reports 27,016 people rode the water taxi between August and December. That sounds like a lot, but it’s not enough to sustain it, says Captain Ron Hilliard, who is also the director of operations for Jax River Taxi. He said the water taxi racked up its largest numbers in October during the Florida-Georgia game (9,523 riders), and One Spark promoted the water taxi as a way to get to the April festival. But the water taxi needs more people downtown regularly to be viable. Despite the challenges, in April Lakeshore Marine signed a five-year contract to continue operating the taxi.
As we headed across the St. Johns River, the nautical Lovenik, Mark Cohee, told me he rides the water taxi every day to his job at Veterans Memorial Arena, for free. (Nice.) Before disembarking for the Arena, Cohee told the San Antonio women to pick up a copy of Folio Weekly. I told him he is an ambassador for Jacksonville, but he disagreed. “I’m an Ambassador for Fun,” he said.