Water has always separated Mobile and Baldwin counties. In some places, it’s spanned by roads and bridges. But the only way to cross the 3.5 miles between Dauphin Island and Fort Morgan are via the ferries operated by the Alabama Department of Transportation.
“To ALDOT, these are roads that go over the water,” said Tim Aguirre, general manager for HMS Ferries Inc., the contractor that handles the day-to-day operations of ferries at Fort Morgan and at Gees Bend in Wilcox County for ALDOT.
After the last vehicle rumbles over the retractable metal ramp, a tinny female voice echoes over the loudspeaker welcoming passengers to a “45-minute cruise across Mobile Bay.” The ferry Fort Morgan’s air horn blares a single blast for “departure” and the boat rumbles to life.
It’s spring break and after months of light loads the ferry’s deck is packed. License plates from Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Louisiana and Florida adorn the vehicles along with the more mundane Alabama tags. HMS operates ferries around the country from Philadelphia to Seattle, but the Mobile Bay ferry is a bit different.
“The majority of our passengers are tourists,” Aguirre said. “The majority of ferries around the country are for commuters to get to and from work. We don’t have a lot of people just trying to get from one place to another. The ferry itself is a tourist destination.”
In 2014, the ferry carried more than 68,000 vehicles between Fort Morgan and Dauphin Island and consumed more than 93,000 gallons of fuel, according to ALDOT spokesman Tony Harris. The bulk of that traffic, about two-thirds, comes between Memorial Day and Labor Day when the Marissa Mae Nicole joins the Fort Morgan and a ferry departs either side every 45 minutes. From September through May, ALDOT runs one ferry, usually the Fort Morgan.
This year, off-season ridership is up, although Aguirre isn’t sure why. It could be lower gas prices mean people are riding more or it could be increased marketing efforts are paying off. Regardless, more off-season riders are always welcome.
“I’d love to increase our ridership in the off season,” Aguirre said. “But in the summer we’re running full and I don’t like unhappy people. I like happy customers.”
Customers like wait times to be as short as possible. The 140-foot, 99-ton Fort Morgan, built in 1988, holds between 32 and 28 vehicles, depending on their size, while the 112-foot Marissa Mae Nicole, which is actually heavier at 199 tons and older, having been in service since 1970, holds up to 18 vehicles. For the most part, they depart and arrive reliably, charging vehicles $16 one way and $30 for a round trip. Additional passengers are $4.50 while children under 12 ride free. “Frequent floater” passes are available for $210 for 20 one-way trips.
Tolls go into an account, Aguirre said. Once fuel, maintenance and employee costs are paid, HMS and ALDOT split the remainder.
On a calm, clear day, it is a relaxing, scenic way to travel as the metal-hulled boats trundle across the bay at between 5 and 6 knots, a total of 30 times a day each during peak season. One ferry runs 16 times a day during daylight savings time in the off season.
“It’s something different every day,” said Jeffery Ellington, the captain and pilot. “You would think it’s the same because it’s the same route. But you see something different every day.”
The captain is not only responsible for operating the vessel but for ensuring the safety of passengers and supervising the two deckhands who work with him. At times there may be a maintenance employee on the vessel as well, and employees work at both landings to direct traffic and collect tolls.
Ellington watches the deck and keeps a lookout for boat and ship traffic. All the while he keeps one eye on the sky and radar screen to stay in touch with the weather.
Weather is the biggest obstacle to operating the ferry and maintaining a schedule. Of the 362 scheduled operating days, the ferry was down 40 days last year, mostly due to weather, Harris said. Twenty-five of those days were lost in January and February when ridership is at its annual low point.
“Cancellations due to maintenance are very rare,” Aguirre said.
Typically, wind is the limiting factor. Once gusts reach 25 to 30 mph, the bay is typically too rough. The captain decides whether or not the ferry runs and, in addition to wind, he takes into account fog, sea state, lightning and approaching fronts. His aim is to get back to Dauphin Island, where both boats are docked, safely, Ellington said. If he can’t do that, he doesn’t want to depart regardless of what the weather is doing at the moment.
“You want to take care of your customers but you have to be safe,” said Aguirre, a former Coast Guard officer. “You can’t put cars that you can’t tie down on slick decks in rolling seas.”
Mobile Bay is nothing to take lightly, either, he said.
“With Mobile Bay, the really tricky part is how quickly it can change,” Aguirre said. “I think we got a really good lesson on that during the [Dauphin Island] regatta last year when those sailors lost their lives.”
In addition to the weather, the biggest hazard is the boat traffic around Billy Goat Hole on Dauphin Island. On busy days, hundreds of fishing and pleasure boats are launching and swarming around the boat ramp. Aguirre said there have been no collisions but there have been close calls.
The ship channel is another danger point, Ellington said. He must keep his eyes out for local commercial traffic and container ships. But he has good communication with the local captains and the harbor pilots on the container ships.
The biggest source of injuries on ferries and any other passenger ship are slips and falls, Aguirre said. Crew members want passengers to enjoy the ride but they have to remain ever vigilant, particularly with children.
With both ferries aging, the state must constantly look at operating costs, Aguirre said. At some point it will have to make a decision whether it is more efficient to operate and repair the older boats or buy new ferries. It will have to decide whether to continue operating two ferries or perhaps buy one with more capacity or faster operating speeds.
But operating a ferry isn’t all about efficient transportation, Aguirre said. The ferry connects two historic sites, Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines. It’s a good way for tourists to take in the scenery and see seabirds and dolphins. It has long been part of Mobile Bay’s landscape.
“I think it’s really a neat treasure for the state,” Aguirre said.