A ferry ride to the other side

June 27, 2005|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

One in a series of occasional stories One million people do it, for various reasons, every summer.

Maybe while visiting the quaint and historic Delaware beach town of Lewes, they decide, in a grass-is-always-greener kind of way, to go to the quaint and historic New Jersey beach town of Cape May. Or vice versa.

Maybe it's logistics. For many, depending on their ultimate destination, the 17-mile, 75-minute ferry trip across the mouth of the Delaware Bay makes more sense than the 180 miles and four hours Lewes to Cape May takes by car.

Or maybe they just like a good boat ride.

And it is going to be a good boat ride -- right? -- even if it is a cloudy and windy June morning in Lewes. Clearly a boat as substantial as the MV Cape May, long as a football field, weighed down with not just people (up to 1,000) but motor vehicles (up to 100), will placidly slice through the somewhat choppy waters (or "moderate sea conditions," as the captain says).

After the boat docks in Lewes, its payload from New Jersey pours out, as if exiting a Noah's Ark for wheeled vehicles: SUV, sedan, SUV, commercial truck, SUV, recreational vehicle, SUV, convertible, SUV, pickup truck, SUV.

Within minutes, the Cape May is ready to return to Cape May, reloaded with cars and people who have passed through a security process slightly less rigorous than the airline equivalent.

"Oh, that's just your jewelry," the employee manning the metal detector tells one "foot passenger" who sets off the alarm. "Don't worry about it."

Foot passengers board the Cape May through something similar to a jetway that spits them into a vast seating area on the boat's second level -- a food court to their left, a gift shop to their right. (Commerce, like cork, foam and hope, floats.) Below, in the belly of the boat, are the cars. Above are three more decks, two of which have glassed-in lounges offering spectacularly unobstructed views. All you see is sea.

It is only when the scenery starts to move that you realize the ferry is under way. In the still waters of the harbor there is no sway, no bob, and the smooth horizon stays where it's supposed to be. But not for long.

A recorded announcement is the first tip-off: "The gentle rocking of this vessel may trigger your vehicle's alarm system ... Please disable alarms ..."

More cautions follow: Watch steps, hold on to handrails. Even the automatic doors spout warnings. "High door sill," an electronic voice says every time someone enters or leaves.

Twenty minutes into the trip, the "gentle swaying" starts, and quickly worsens. Once the ferry enters the deeper, choppier waters of the shipping channel, the horizon is no longer horizontal. It's all over the place.

Those who attempt to walk find themselves banging into walls, staggering from side to side -- "just like being drunk," one passenger notes.

Only a few passengers seem to suffer ill effects; the rest take the bobbing in stride. Some enjoy the scenery, or watch the seagulls chasing the ferry's wake. Others, likely regular commuters, read newspapers or work crosswords. Most aboard are tourists, though -- headed to shop in Cape May, or venture farther north and try their luck in Atlantic City. To some, the ferry ride is a chance to bond with fellow travelers, whether over a discussion of politics or motion sickness.

"Don't look out the window, that only makes it worse," a man advises a seasick traveler at the next table. She puts her head down and closes her eyes.

Others at the table engage in a lively discussion, snippets of which waft across the tilting cabin like a lilting ocean breeze.

"These politicians just don't understand. They need to get their hands dirty." "We're paying $75 for our cable TV in Delaware -- $75!" "It's corporate greed ... it was different back when things were family-owned."

Thirty minutes later, the waters calm as the ferry nears Cape May Point. The conversation concludes and passengers go their separate ways.

The ferry unloads, then loads up again for the trip back to Lewes. As it leaves Cape May, it passes a school of dolphins.

Back in Lewes, the New Jersey passengers get off, the Delaware passengers get on. And on it goes, back and forth, all day long, all summer long, as cars and humans cross the Delaware Bay for all sorts of reasons, but really only one.

To get to the other side.

To read previous stories in this series, go online to baltimoresun.com/places.

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