February 5, 2021
Ferry Facts: Captains Then & Now
Aye, Aye, Captain!Mariners love to talk about boats, but are generally shy talking about themselves. As a result, we don't always get the whole picture of those who have served on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry since its service launch in 1964. Even in prior DRBA Executive Director Bill Miller's book A Ferry Tale, written in commemoration of the Ferry's 25th anniversary, there is little devoted to captains. However, over the years, with captains staying in close touch with each other and some media coverage, there are pieces that, when assembled, tell an interesting story of those who keep the boats crossing daily for the past 57 years.
Beginnings With Billy Ray
The story often starts with Capt. Billy Ray Phillips, who came to the DRBA with the first ferries purchased from Virginia. Billy Ray passed away on Sept. 16, 2020. He started as a deck hand in Virginia at age 17, rose to captain and transferred to the DRBA in 1964. He is considered our first ferry Captain.
After retiring from the DRBA, Capt Phillips remained in Cape May, always making time to stay in touch with retired and active captains and DRBA staff to help pass down some of the lore. In addition, the Cape Charles Historical Society collected a series of oral histories from Viriginia ferry captains, some of whom also came over to our system and tended to reference us in their discussions about the end of the Kiptopeke ferry service and the origins of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. Chief among them is an oral history series featuring Capt. Bill Evans, one of the first captains to come to CMLF with Capt. Phillips. Still, the Ferry Tales are few and far between, but when some are uncovered they are rich with wonderful stories of the early days.
For instance, due to Delaware Governor Elbert Carvel's veto of a plan to bring several crew members along with the ferries from Virginia, much of the early crew training fell to Phillips. Speaking to the Cape Charles Historical Society, both Belote and Phillips recounted the great sense of accountability they felt on becoming captains. They were responsible for the lives of thousands of people and millions of dollars of equipment and had “nobody’s door to knock on,” as they were the pioneers in Cape May. Captain Belote modestly recalled how he “suddenly felt as if he knew nothing when he captained a ferry for the first time and that Captain Phillips told him he would feel that way.”
Other Firsts On The Bridge
After Capt. Phillips, the next first was Linda Douglas as our first female captain in 1982. She joined the Ferry after receiving Coast Guard training and sailed up as captain after 9 years on board. Thirty-eight years later, our current Captain Sharon Urban became the first permanent full-time female captain for our fleet in 2020.
As all three historical firsts show, there were and continue to be several ways to get started on your rise to the rank of captain. To read more, click on the button below published on cmlf.com to answer the frequent question we get from aspiring youngsters and interested adults.
The Historical Roster
With data on hand largely by challenging the memory of now-retired Captain Rick McCann, we know of 42 full-time employees who have served as either permanent or sail-up captains (mates and pilots certified to sail as a captain) over our 57 year history. Currently, we operate with two permanent captains -- Sharon Urban and Melissa Velli -- four sail-up captains and 2 retired captains -- Stan Hansen and Dave Macomber -- who still step in as casual call-backs when needed.
To read about some of our current and recently retired captains check out the page on cmlf.com with the button below.
Port Captains, those who manage the marine operations and crew, are yet anonther story. Over the years, at least three captains from the helm have also served as Port Captains, including Richard Woehlicke, Bryan Helm, and most recently Stan Hansen.
You hear of tall tales of the seas, but captains still tend to remain a tight-lipped bunch rarely willing to impart much about themselves. Some journalists have gotten good at documenting stories of modern-day mariners to encourage new generations to consider careers on the water, including stories of our own ferry captains. Dave Macomber was featured in a 2018 New York Times article on interesting careers, and Robert Vance was featured on the podcast American Voices hosted by ex-NJ senator Bill Bradley in 2019 as well as a 2013 article in the Press of Atlantic City.
Our First Ferry Reef. In 1964, the SS Princess Anne from the Little Creek Cape Charles Ferry Service (aka Kiptopeke-Cape Charles Virginia Ferry) became one of four vessels purchased by the DRBA to start the Cape May-Lewes Ferry service. She was renamed the SS New Jersey and stayed in service until the 1970s when new MV vessels were purchased. The Princess Anne, aka SS NJ, was sold to The Mascony Transport and Ferry Service, which never really came to fruition. The DRBA lost track of her whereabouts, but in 1993, she made the news when she was sunk off the coast of Palm Beach, FL to become an artificial reef to help foster fish population habitats and serve as a scuba diving attraction.
In 2018, the MV Twin Capes became the second CMLF vessel to serve duty as a reef in the shared waters of DE, MD and NJ. The ocean floor on the mid-Atlantic is generally bare sand bottom with no protection for reef fish and subsequent commercial and sport fishing off artificial reefs is estimated to return $7million annually to state coastal economies.