Mayport, Fla. — On the day after Thanksgiving, the river was calm and the sky a clear blue as Capt. Wayne Fenner piloted the St. Johns River Ferry between Mayport village and Ft. George Island. After seventeen years this would be his last Thanksgiving weekend carrying cars and pedestrians between the two landings.
Traffic had been heavy Thanksgiving day and still was the next with travelers headed to or from Amelia Island and Georgia. Fenner said most pedestrians had been to dinner at the landmark Sand Dollar Restaurant on the north shore.
A fire badly damaged the restaurant in March 2012. Fenner remembered the thick, black smoke billowing into the sky across the river as he arrived at the ferry dock in Mayport to start his shift. It took 40 firefighters, including a marine unit, about five hours to contain the blaze.
The St. Johns River Ferry is better known as the Mayport Ferry and Jean Ribault is the name of the boat. Fenner was hired on as a part-time relief ferry captain with the Florida Dept. of Transportation back in 1995. Fenner will retire in June and from the pilot house he had a story or two to tell.
In September 1999, the monster storm Hurricane Floyd was forecast to strike Florida triggering the evacuation of more than one million coastal Floridians. Fenner was part of the evacuation team for residents leaving the Jacksonville Beaches area through Mayport.
In this video, Fenner tells his hurricane story while crossing the river from Mayport to Ft. George Island. Watch for wake turbulence – the Sand Dollar Restaurant begins to pass by from the west and is recognizable by its oversized outdoor porch roof.
The Mayport Ferry had been under the purview of FDOT since 1948, but ran into turbulence of its own when the state stopped its funding in the 2007 – 2008 lean fiscal budget year. The Dames Point Bridge was to be the alternate route to S.R. A1A, which the ferry connects, a distance of some 28 miles west. Influential businesses and residents using the ferry daily convinced the city to maintain the ferry.
“Well, the city found out that a ferry is just like any other bridge – it doesn’t make any money,” said Fenner. “… after a while JAXPORT (Jacksonville Port Authority) decided it was gonna jump into the picture and save it.”
By 2011 JAXPORT could no longer afford to maintain the ferry at the expense of it core cargo business. A grassroots organization called “Save the Ferry” rallied to keep the ferry in operation. In February 2012 JAXPORT announced it would run the ferry through Sept. 30, much to Mayor Alvin Brown’s relief.
The city set up a public-private partnership for the ferry and is currently in negotiations to transfer ownership of the St. Johns River Ferry to Jacksonville Transportation Authority. Hornblower Marine Services has managed the ferry for whoever happened to own it for the past 18 years. HMS Mayport General Manager Mark Fernandez said negotiations with JTA should be completed by the end of next year’s first quarter.
Back on the Jean Ribault a few days after Thanksgiving, there was a slight delay in departure as a blanket of fog rolled in from the Atlantic. A Wallenius carrier appeared from the west almost as a ghost ship sailing out to sea. It crossed paths with another auto carrier bound for Blount Island.
“The bigger the ship, the deeper the horn,” said Fenner.
He recalled fondly the bonds the Mayport community has with the ferry. Fenner used to give birthday cards to the family of kids who grew up riding the ferry back and forth to school.
He laughed because one time a regular commuter won the drawing for a year’s free ridership at Ferry Fest, a fund-raising event held annually by the “Save the Ferry” group. He thought they never did hold that drawing again.
As the ferry pulled into Ft. George, Fenner pointed to the dock hold and said sometimes they get alligators, and snakes, and otters in there. Richard Plourde, an old-time engineer who had been in the pilot house the whole time and hadn’t said much, motioned back toward Mayport.
“One time we got a whale,” he whispered hoarsely.
It is a tradition for regular commuters to bring Thanksgiving dinner to the crew of the Jean Ribault. Next year, Capt. Wayne Fenner will be at his other home for Thanksgiving dinner.