On Thursday, March 31, the JacksonvilleTransportation Authority took over the day-to-day operations of the St. Johns River Ferry, a car, truck, motorcycle, bicycle and pedestrian vessel that traverses just a shade under a mile from Mayport to Fort George Island in a snap. My family and I recently moved into the historic village in downtown Mayport, home to the riverboat ride, where we can hear the horn blowing for departure from the couch in our living room. It is awesome.
Wanting to find out more about this unique form of public transit, I recently sat down with James Sullivan, port captain for the St. Johns River Ferry. Sullivan, who has been working on boats since he was 14 years old, credits his childhood mentor, Dominic Camilli, who was his youth leader in an organization called Sea Cadets, for kickstarting his interest to spend his life working on boats. Sullivan said, “I started working on tugboats in Boston Harbor when I was 16 years old … as a deckhand and progressed my way up through different companies … I’ve always worked on the ocean, always loved working on the ocean.”
Sullivan has worked across the United States and all over the world. As the senior port captain of the ferry, his role is to organize boat crews, scheduling, and work alongside the port engineer who supervises the vessel’s maintenance. Prior to being Port Captain, Sullivan worked from ’08-’12 on the military base in Mayport as a civilian contractor for Seaward Services, a private company hired by the government to simulate Navy fleet training exercises in preparation for their pre-deployment missions.
“I worked there for four years on a vessel called The Hunter and we did Navy fleet training exercises … vessel seize-and-search training,” he said. “Pre-deployment, the ships would go out and have war game exercises and we played the bad guy.”
When I asked him if he actually dressed up as a bad guy, Sullivan replied, “We’d play pirates, we’d play the bad guys in the scenario … we’d be floating out there and they’d send the Navy ships to hunt us down, find us. Once they found us, they’d send a boarding party over and search the ship. Usually we’d have some kind of contraband or something for them to find.”
With that statement, Sullivan quickly became one of the most interesting public figures in my newly adopted hometown. I felt compelled to ask more about dressing in costumes for the role-playing exercise.
“Sometimes there would be some kind of costumes, depending on what kind of level of training they [the military] wanted to have, what they wanted to do. They had all these set scripts,” he said.
Sullivan said they’d go out for a week or two at a time and have simulated role-playing every two or three days.
“Most of it was talking back and forth … [on] the marine radio and we would give them some trigger points on the radio they’re supposed to react to, different things we said, they were supposed to take that and react a certain way. There would be Navy personnel on board that would score them on how they reacted and what they did [in] each scenario.”
Sullivan said there were boxes on board taped with simulated contraband or illegal weapons as a prop for the military officers to find.
As many locals know, the ferry was not in operation from July 25-31 due to scheduled maintenance.
“There is always a certain time of regular maintenance and when you have a vessel that runs 365 days a year, 14 to 15 hours a day, something is always going to break, there’s no really set-down maintenance time … except when we do something like this where we’re shut down for a week … once a year, once every couple of years,” Sullivan said.
Part of the recent maintenance included the installation of Teflon rubberized sheeting wrapped around the perimeter of the ferry. Since JTA has taken over, there’s a new protective surface on the slip walls where the boat docks. The Teflon sheeting protects the boat’s steel edges from prematurely damaging these new surfaces. Due to safety and security protocols, JTA has also installed 12 new cameras monitoring all areas of the vessels. Users will be able to view the ferry remotely via the Internet and all actions will be recorded and stored on the vessel’s computer hard drive.
According to Sullivan, about six months ago, JTA reduced the number of traffic lanes on the ferry from five to four. This revision resulted in the vessels not being able to carry as many vehicles, but it has cut down on the number of car accidents on board. Sullivan said that previously, cars and trucks were so close together, some people could not get out of their vehicles, which was a major safety concern. Since making this change, Sullivan said, the ferry offers a more secure environment with more space on deck for passengers to enjoy.
One of the most interesting things I learned from Sullivan is that the St. Johns River Ferry is actually part of State Road A1A.
“I don’t think that a lot of people know that the ferry is actually part of A1A … If you look at Google maps, A1A ends over there on the Fort George side and then starts back over here again, so we’re actually part of the highway system for the state of Florida. You cannot drive the whole length of A1A in Florida without going on the ferry.”
Sullivan credits his crew’s efficiency at getting the job done under difficult and uncomfortable working conditions, especially in the 100-degree-plus days in the summer. The only time his crew gets a break from the sun is during the six minutes it takes to cross the St. Johns River. Otherwise, they toil for seven hours straight.
Sullivan said, “Captain is the glamorous job. I don’t think the deckhands, toll-takers and the crew get enough recognition ’cause they’re the ones down there in the nitty gritty all day, while I’m standing up there in air-conditioning.”
The St. Johns River Ferry operates 365 days a year, including holidays.
Murdoch is a Canadian who loves to write about Jacksonville.