Back and forth across the St. Johns River

For the past 50 years, and more than 580,000 crossings, the St. Johns River Ferry has become a part of the cultural history of the St. Johns River near the river’s mouth at Mayport, Fla., east of Jacksonville.

The St. Johns River Ferry Jean Ribault transports commuters and tourists on a 700-yard, eight-minute run between Mayport and Ft. George Island. Over the past 50 years, the service has made an estimated 580,000 crossings.

The ferry’s 700-yard, eight-minute run has been described as resembling a slow-motion rally in table tennis. “It’s like a ping-pong ball going back and forth,” said Capt. Willie Washington, one the ferry’s captains.

But the ferry has always provided an important service for commuters and tourists. The short run across the river between Mayport and Ft. George Island saves time and mileage. Crossing the river by ferry rather than by bridge farther upriver saves 44 miles on a round trip in city traffic. The ferry also links communities to the north, such as Fernandina, Fla., on Amelia Island, with the beaches east of Jacksonville. It would seem that Florida has more slogans than oranges, calling the ferry service the “Gateway to the Beaches” along the “The Buccaneer Trail,” and the St. Johns River Ferry is as much an enhancement to tourism as it is a convenience for commuters. Despite the ferry’s advantages and tradition, the state almost swatted the ferry off the river in 1997.

The ferry service ran into trouble after the Dames Point Bridge, built nearly halfway between the ferry and downtown Jacksonville, opened in 1989 and gave commuters another way to cross the river without going through downtown Jacksonville. After the bridge opened, the ferry’s ridership dropped from a peak of 514,700 in 1986-87 to 262,900 in 1994-95. The ferry, with its dependence on an annual state subsidy of $750,000 to remain in operation, faced a bleak future.

Jacksonville assumed operation of the ferry from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) in 1997, and called for tenders from the private sector to take over the ferry operation. Hornblower Marine Services of San Francisco won the contract and took on the challenge of making the operation more efficient. Now, halfway through its term, the company has decreased the ferry’s annual subsidy from $750,000 to $223,000 per year. “The key to decreasing the subsidy is offering on-time, reliable service and generating extra revenue with special events such as private parties,” said Steve Mort, Hornblower Marine’s general manager of the ferry operation and a former Coast Guard chief quartermaster. “It was not a customer- or a revenue-based operation before. We cleaned it up, made it more efficient.”

Steve Mort is the general manager of the ferry operation for Hornblower Marine, which took over the service from Jacksonville and has been working to make it more efficient and profitable.

Hornblower employs 28 people to run the ferry, down from the 37-plus when the ferry was under state control. Hornblower runs the operation from its offices in Mayport, a cluster of old Army Corps of Engineer buildings in a tight knot of commercial fishing operations, restaurants and shops between the St. Johns River and Highway A1A. The Mayport community separates the river from the Mayport Naval Station.

The ferry’s recovery was a form of privatization, tempered with an $8 million injection from the FDOT and the federal government. Four million dollars were used to build new ferry slips on the Mayport and Fort George Island banks. Another $4 million was allocated to build the Jean Ribault, a 168-by-64-foot replacement for the 47-year-old Buccaneer, and relegated Blackbeard, built in 1956, to relief vessel status.

Jean Ribault, named for a Frenchman who sailed into the St. Johns River, what was then called the “River of May,” on May 1, 1562, to establish a refuge for French Huguenots, was constructed at Atlantic Marine, Jacksonville. She has an eight-cylinder, 1,000-hp EMD 645 engine and Lufkin gears, fore and aft. There is a 67-inch single screw and a rudder at each end. When viewed straight on, Jean Ribault looks like a giant bug with a gaping mouth full of vehicles.




Capt. Willie Washington describes his job as being ‘like a ping-pong ball going back and forth.’ The biggest navigational challenge for the captains is reading and reacting to the river’s currents.

Jean Ribault is the largest U.S.-flag passenger vessel in Jacksonville, with the highest capacity for passenger charters on the St. Johns River. She is an open-deck design, as opposed to the center island configuration of her predecessors, and is licensed for 38 vehicles and 200 passengers. The passenger limit is increased to 400 by means of an excursion permit from the Coast Guard for private events. She has been the venue for a dozen such gatherings in the past two years, and has four bookings on deck. Jean Ribault has plenty of room for a band and tables on the 22,000 square feet of deck, carpeted and covered with an awning for events. The cost of booking an event is $2,000 to $3,000. When Jean Ribault is in party mode, Blackbeard is pressed into service.

Blackbeard and Buccaneer also have single screws on each end, but they have less power and the engines are slower to respond. This has raised docking the older ferries to an art form. “With the Blackbeard, landings were made on the basis of a controlled crash,” said Mort. “She was low speed, heavy, and low powered and required a lot of talent to dock. Jean Ribault is high speed, light and high powered.” Blackbeard‘s performance was improved in 1998 when it was repowered with two 750-hp Detroit Diesels with Twin Disc gears turning three-bladed, 48-inch wheels fore and aft.

The ferries are manned with a captain, two deckhands, an engineer and a toll collector. The crew is not only responsible for the safety of the vessel and the passengers, but they try to make the short ride as enjoyable as possible, especially for the tourists.

“The back and forth of the job makes it routine, but the safety of the crew and passengers is the first priority,” said Capt. Wayne Fenner, another former Coast Guard chief quartermaster. “This is an adventure for a lot of people. We often see dolphins putting on a show for the ships.”

The biggest navigational challenge for the captains who run the ferries are the river’s currents. “The most challenging part of the job is reading and reacting to the changing current in the river,” said Mort. “But we look at the current as a tool rather than a hindrance. Slack tide presents the greatest challenge, when the captains have nothing to work with or against.” Washington agreed. “That’s about 80 percent of the job,” said Washington, a retired Navy boatswain’s mate. The ferries also cope with avoiding ship traffic and contending with the frequent Florida thunderstorms and fog. “We do get a lot of fog – times when you can’t see the other side – but we have all the electronics we need,” Washington said.

At $2.75 for a double-axle vehicle, the ferry is a bargain for commuters and tourists alike. Dependability in any weather is assured with Jean Ribault‘s electronics, power and maneuverability. The repowered Blackbeard is in good shape to step in when needed. “Reliability equals revenue,” said Mort. “And our revenues are going up. We had our peak last July, taking in $102,000.” Hornblower is also working with the Friends of the St. Johns River Ferry Service, a group funded by the Jacksonville Community Foundation to landscape the grounds surrounding the two ferry slips into park settings.

The back and forth life of the St. Johns River Ferry seems destined to continue its perpetual rally that has become such a large part of the history of the St. Johns River.

By Professional Mariner Staff