Captain John Farris, Master of M/V Charlie Wells, sips coffee outside his Herron Island home, listens to early morning birdsong and watches the antics of a new fawn almost near enough to touch. Quiet. Peaceful. It is an hour before the first island ferry leaves the dock for the mainland on a Friday morning. Farris is a licensed U.S. Merchant Marine officer with 30 years experience. He operated fishing boats, tugs, and workboats before accepting the Herron run. Weekday captain for nearly five years, e greets friends and neighbors in line for the 6:15 a.m. run, coffee mug in hand.
Donnie Surratt, cheerful deckhand, directs the loading, and about eight minutes later, unloading on the mainland. The signal light is green, a reminder for pedestrians to stay off ramp and dock while cars are in motion. A single high school student is among the first early commuters.
First trip back to the island carries a CenturyTel truck and several construction workers in assorted vehicles. A manufactured and two log homes are being built on Herron. “We hauled the (manufactured) house over in 10 trailer loads one day,” says Captain John with a smile. They had to schedule midweek, and work in trailer loads as they could. It was a busy day.
On Memorial Day weekend, they ran several shuttles. Nine hundred vehicles for a three-day weekend isn’t unusual. Many houses on the island are used only summers and weekends. Some island residents plan ahead to shop and run errands on other days so they can stay home on Fridays. In contrast, this winter when the snows were heaviest, the ferry carried only two cars in two days. Some drivers had difficulty navigating the hill above the landing. “The Islanders just stayed home,” said Farris.
Every two years, the ferry goes to the shipyard for two weeks to be checked and repaired. Islanders are given the schedule well in advance, park their cars on the mainland, and commute by private boat.
Back at the island, captain and deckhand meet the islanders out of their cars to wait for loading time. This trip includes Terrill Farris, John’s wife, to substitute at the Key Peninsula Middle School; Skylar Surratt, seventh grader; and mom Susie, also heading out to sub. Skylar loves island living for the quiet and feeling of safety. She doesn’t mind being the only one her age, because she has many summer friends — some who stay and start school with her. She also has three younger sisters. Two boys and three girls also take the 8:30 a.m. ferry from the island to catch the bus to Evergreen Elementary. The only kindergarten student will be back for the 12:30 p.m. ride home.
Captain and deckhand get a break between the 9 a.m. ferry in and the noon run out and back. They usually have another breather until after 2, for the going-home run. Today, with construction workers leaving earlier than usual, they need to shuttle at the noon passage. When there are too many cars for one load — maximum is 12 — turnaround is quick and they do a shuttle.
Most Fridays, Steve Wiggins, weekend captain, takes over on the 6:30 p.m. run. He makes his last trip back to the island at 9 p.m. Today, he’s on duty earlier, so Farris can make an appointment in town. Wiggins, who captained fishing and pleasure boats before moving to Herron Island, has been operating the Charlie Wells about the same length of time as Farris.
This day the 4 p.m. has only three cars. David and Kevin jump off the school bus and chatter as they board and move inside the narrow cabin. The Surratt twins have ball practice on Fridays. David has only lived on the Herron for five months. He loves the beach, but hates his chore of scooping up and disposing of deer poop. Kevin, an islander since age 2, agrees about the beach, but has perhaps a more agreeable chore — doing dishes.
On the run back to the mainland, Wiggins invites two visitors to the wheelhouse after the boat is underway. The bow and stern on this boat are determined by which direction it travels. Identical controls are on both sides – End No. 1, and End No. 2. A wheel on each side is for backup manual steering, but the usual mode is by hydraulic operated rudder.
The island homeowners own the ferry, renamed Charlie Wells in 1992 in memory of a much loved captain. Homeowners’ annual assessments pay for about half the operation and maintenance, and ferry fees provide the rest. Low tides sometimes cause cancellations and delays, but each resident can pick up a bi-monthly schedule of dates and times. Islanders have chosen to arrange their days by the ferry schedule or have their own boats to cross the water.
The Charlie Wells has been a rescue ship in times past. One day Farris noticed a small aluminum boat with a man hanging on to the outside. The hapless fisherman had snagged a salmon, hauled it aboard, but the lawn chair he’d been sitting in flipped and he went overboard. Captain Farris steered the ferry north, helped the man back into his boat, and the story has become an island legend.
Another day, with squalls approaching, the ferry crew found a young man, with an East Coast accent, spinning around in his 10-foot pram with broken oarlocks. They towed him in and were only 15 minutes behind schedule at the mainland. Those waiting on the dock asked the crew what they’d been doing out there, but most passengers sat in their cars, read their papers, and didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.
Are the captains and crew ever bored? All three men working today say “No.” Every trip is different; no two days are alike. Weather, tides, wind, passengers vary. Occasional whales are sighted, but only one so far this year. Seals are common, as are deer crossing between island and mainland.
When the wind makes the waves too rough for island docking, the ferry steers around to the north side of the island and idles until it is calmer. If the wind comes from the south on an outgoing tide, perhaps twice a year in the fall, Wiggins says waves may be three to four feet high. North winds have more effect on the mainland dock, but wind difficulties are not common.
What does Farris like best about this work? “Being home every night. Not being on the ocean. Living on an island.” It’s a great life for these special people who operate the Herron Island link to the mainland.