Miles add up fast for Mobile Bay ferry captains

Marissa Mae Nicole gets underway from Dauphin Island.

With three short blasts of the whistle, Marissa Mae Nicole got underway from Dauphin Island, Ala., for Fort Morgan, four miles across Mobile Bay.

Longtime Mobile Bay Ferry Capt. Dennis Kula guided the double-ended vehicle ferry away from the landing under gray skies and steered east toward open water. 

Joe Kula, his brother and port captain, came along for the voyage both have done thousands of times before.  

“This is it, back and forth, back and forth,” Joe said.

“The last time I added it up, I have been across the bay enough to go around the world eight times,” Dennis added. 

The Mobile Bay Ferry, operated by HMS Ferries, runs year-round between Dauphin Island and Fort Morgan with two ferries. The 35-minute crossing saves about 90 miles when driving around the bay. Vacationers heading to Gulf Shores or points further east account for much of the summertime traffic. 

The 112-foot Marissa Mae Nicole was built in 1970 for North Carolina’s state ferry system. It arrived in the Gulf of Mexico after Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out a bridge connecting Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian in Mississippi. HMS Ferries began operating the ferry after the Bay St. Louis Bridge reopened in 2007.

Propulsion on the 22-vehicle ferry comes from three 184-hp Detroit Diesel 6V71 engines turning four-bladed brass props. Two Cummins generators provide ship service power. Depending on the weather and tides, Marissa Mae Nicole crosses the bay at about 7 knots while drawing around 3.5 feet.

The Kula brothers grew up boating and swimming around Mobile Bay. Joe started working on deck 27 years ago and worked his way up to engineer, then captain and now port captain. Dennis started 21 years ago after serving in the military, and he’s been a captain for 13 years. 

The brothers have helped create a culture where everyone from captains to deck hands pitch in. Dennis Kula, for instance, directs vehicle loading and occasionally checks the engine oil between runs. 

“We don’t have anyone who is too good to get dirty,” he said.

Marissa Mae Nicole sailed east-southeast toward Fort Morgan in Mobile Bay’s shallow, murky waters. The ferry passed energy platforms while supply boats zigged and zagged in the distance.

With so many crossings under his belt, Dennis has a familiarity with the route few captains can match. This knowledge comes in handy during bad weather, which can bring squalls, fog and swells from the Gulf of Mexico. 

“You’d be surprised. Today is a pretty normal, average-looking day, but you can get 8-foot seas right here in a matter of 10 or 15 minutes,” he said. 

“I like to think I have seen everything you can see on these ferries, but there is always something new,” Joe added.

Dennis lined up the bow with an energy platform just north of the Fort Morgan ferry terminal, then began his starboard turn toward the landing. The ferry spun around to dock with the stern facing the loading ramp. Shallow water and dolphins on the starboard side left little room for error. 

Dennis brought in the vessel for a gentle landing. Within a minute or two, vehicles were funneling off the ship. Before long a new batch came on for the return trip, which gave both captains another 4 miles in the logbook as they worked toward another turn around the earth.

By Professional Mariner Staff