David White has been one of the captains at the helm of the St. Johns River Ferry’s Jean Ribault 40-car vessel for five years.
In the navigation bridge on a sweltering afternoon, the former Coast Guardsman said the passengers, and the navigation challenge, make the job worthwhile.
“I like interacting with the people and also it’s fun for me, for the current, you know? The current here is something, and it’s good to just be able to … when everything goes exactly the way it’s supposed to. That’s a pretty good feeling,” he said.
Private ferries began crossing the St. Johns River in the area of the present day ferry, loaded with farmers and fishermen, in the late 1800s.
Since the first public ferries charted the one mile course between Mayport and Fort George Island in 1948, they’ve been sort of a government hot potato, switching hands from the state, to the port authority and the city, before coming under the control of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority a couple of years back.
JTA spokeswoman Leigh Ann Rassler said since then, a million riders have used the ferry — up to 40 cars and 200 people at a time — and not all of them for purely practical purposes.
“A lot of people that I run into as well they just [say] ‘hey I wanted to ride it. It’s pretty neat.’ You can get
on it and see all sorts of wildlife. Kevin, one of my coworkers, saw dolphins earlier so, you know, it is a destination in itself,” she said.
People like Joe Caprice and his wife. The tourists from Boston took the ferry as part of a scenic route from Amelia Island south to Ponte Vedra Beach; a route the National Park Service has designated the A1A Scenic Byway.
“What do I think of this? It’s great. For $6 to come across? It’s beautiful, it’s a great way to travel. Breaks up the ride too,” he said.
Over the years, the ferry has weathered budget storms, with one entity or another seeking to sink it for a lack of profitability. But without it, drivers would see their commutes get longer — from a one mile, 15 minute ride across the river to a 28 mile bypass. So, every time the ferry seemed doomed, a groundswell of public support kept it afloat.
One of those moments of doubt resulted in the creation of the advocacy nonprofit Friends of the Ferry. Rich Redick is its president.
He said the ferry is an important piece of the area’s culture.
“This part of Florida, this Northeast part of Florida — the beautiful part with a lot of history going back to the Huguenots when they arrived here, would be lost. There’d be no way to experience it the way you can experience it today. As a former history teacher, it would be a shame not to have this kind of access to both sides of the river,” he said.
JTA leaders say they’ll continue building on that history this summer, work begins on an at least six week project to replace ferry infrastructure like vehicle bridges and boat slips. That work is being funded by a $3.35 million federal grant.
The work will require taking the ferry out of service from approximately September 4 through October 31.
Editor's Note: This story is part of WJCT’s Beyond the Core project, a listening tour designed to help us get to know the community and to help our audience get to know each other. Beyond the Core stories are based on what we hear at listening sessions. Please visit our Beyond the Core page for more information and to find out whether we’ll be in your neighborhood soon.