Bay ferry hopes to outsail chill of sluggish season

July 05, 1992|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Staff Writer

Rainy and freakishly chilly days have posed the biggest challenge for the Chesapeake Flyer in this the third season for the catamaran ferry express.

"Taking into consideration the terrible weather we've had this spring, we're doing pretty well," said Louise Buttion, who is part of a new management team making a more aggressive pitch of the ferry's Chesapeake Bay routes linking Baltimore, Rock Hall, Annapolis and St. Michaels.

The catamaran rides on twin, parallel hulls and is licensed to carry 125 people. But management has lowered the limit to 80 for comfort's sake. So far, passengers aren't crowding the limit.

Ms. Buttion said the goal this ferry season, which runs April through November, was to carry an average of 65 passengers a day, but the service is only about a quarter of the way there.

"It's the weather situation that's discouraging people," she said, but eventually, "I'm looking for it to become the in thing to do."

The boat sidled up to the Constellation dock at 9:30 one morning last week to let off 16 passengers who had boarded at Rock Hall 75 minutes earlier. Many were Eastern Shore residents coming to an afternoon baseball game at Camden Yards, an important new attraction this year for evening runs as well. One man was a commuter with a dark suit and briefcase.

Ten people boarded, including Dale Ball from San Antonio.

Mr. Ball was visiting Baltimore for the first time for a convention of the American Society of Heating Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers.

Once out of the harbor, the ferry accelerated to a cruising speed of about 24 mph. As the scenery from the Flyer's deck changed from Inner Harbor glitter of office towers and marinas to the gray of smokestacks and warehouses, Mr. Ball was impressed.

It was unusual to see industry so close to downtown, he said.

"I thought the industrialized stuff was kind of neat, the way it followed the harbor out," he said.

As the craft nosed into the City Dock at Annapolis, Mr. Ball studied the classical architectural lines of the buildings lining the shore.

"Looks like you could be coming into France or Greece," he said. "It's like you see in the travel books."

And you see it on schedule.

In previous years, the ferry wouldn't always run if not enough people paid for passage, said Manson Chisholm, the ship's captain. This year, the ferry follows every line of its schedule, he said, whatever the number of passengers.

The ferry shares the way to its four destinations with tankers and pleasure craft.

"Always something different out here," said Mr. Chisholm. But the shoreline was blurry.

"I can't see anything today. It's so hazy," he said.

On the eastern side of the bay, Eastern Shore people are recognizing the ferry as a convenient way into Baltimore for a day of business or entertainment, said Larry Beck, president of the Kent County commissioners and a Rock Hall native.

The development of condominiums and marinas in Rock Hall in the past five years has transformed what was once a waterman's town into a tourist draw.

"With this development came the ferry," Mr. Beck said. The tourists the ferry brings have helped the local restaurant business, he said, and provided a market for the bicycle rental shop.

The Chesapeake Flyer runs between Rock Hall and Baltimore and takes longer excursions around the bay to Annapolis and St. Michaels and back.

The schedule is now daily, compared with six days a week last year. Fares from Baltimore range from $24.25, round-trip to Rock Hall or Annapolis, to $44.75 for an all-day round-trip to Rock Hall and St. Michael's.

The boat is 49 feet long, with upper and lower cabins equipped with air conditioning, and a bar for drinks and snacks.

On this particular muggy day trip to Annapolis and St. Michaels, a pair of Baltimore County school librarians preferred the warm breeze of the open deck at the stern. The ride was pleasant, they said. But if the cruise was ever going to qualify for a school social studies field trip, which is how they instinctively evaluated it, educational entertainment would be essential.

A small videotape of points of interest, with an audio commentary, might help, said Marian Drach, a former supervisor of the Baltimore County school system libraries. "As a media specialist," as some school librarians are now called, "I have to tell you, you have to jazz it up," she said, thinking bigger as she spoke. "If you mentioned any places of business, they'd probably pay you to be on the tape."

Mrs. Drach was taking the catamaran to unwind on the first day of her retirement after 34 years with the county schools.

She was accompanied by Carolyn Mollenkopf, a county school librarian who works part time as a hotel concierge, advising guests on what to do around Baltimore.

Mrs. Mollenkopf, who has already sent guests on the Chesapeake Flyer, wanted to check out the cruise for herself and investigate eating places and bicycle rentals for the two-hour layover in St. Michaels.

"This is research and development for me," she said, and she concluded that the trip was worth recommending.

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