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A Summer Deckhand on the James

Johnny Robinson on the James River Ferry he worked in 1979.

by John Robinson

Chuck and I manhandle the wooden ramps into place as Grey prepares to direct the cars off the ferry. It’s another sultry July day on the James River. I rest as I watch and wave as eleven cars drive off on the Charles City side of the river. More are lined up to cross back over to Hopewell, and I direct them onto the barge when it’s empty again. I’d love to see a time-lapse video of the process: cars on, cars off, cars on, cars off. All day long, fourteen hours a day. The tug-and-barge ferry -our sister ship- on the other side is just about ready too, and we depart our respective wharves at the same time for the sixteen-minute crossing. Once we have the lines secured and the big steel plate ramp cranked up –and the wooden accessory ramps stowed- my mates and I relax and chat with each other and the passengers. It’s the best part of the job, feeling the hot breeze in our hair, watching the ever-changing sky above and water below, and talking to the nice folks on board. Including of course the occasional young lady.

It’s a summer during college and through the vagaries of connections of a friend of a friend I got the job as a deckhand on this ferry operation. A month previous, an ocean-bound ship heading out from Allied Chemical in Hopewell collided with the Benjamin Harrison Bridge, and the damage would take the bridge out of commission for over a year. The state highway department scrambled to put together a temporary replacement, and our little ferry service is the result.

Each of the two ferries is a cobbled-together affair consisting of a simple steel barge, about 20 feet by sixty feet, with four-foot-high chain link fence running down each side. Attached to the barge amidships is a small WWII surplus harbor tug. The tug pivots at her bow via a somewhat crude-looking arrangement of welded quarter-inch steel plate and pipe, and this enables the tug to swing and “face the other way” upon each trip across the river.

Before heading out with a ferry-load of vehicles, we deckhands help the captain maneuver the tug around and secure its stern to the barge for the new heading. We do this about 30 times a day and have gotten quite good at the subtleties involved. We toss the big nylon hawser just right and then deftly secure it to the 12-inch cleat, all with a flourish, showing off to whoever might be watching.

It’s hot but we’re not so inclined as to take a dip in the river, even if we had time. The James here has the appearance of black coffee. If it’s over six inches deep we can’t see the bottom. And it doesn’t smell so good either. Furthermore, I’m amazed at how acrid the first drops of rain are in a passing shower. Perhaps the sprawling chemical company on the Hopewell side has something to do with this.

As I said, this little ferry system was hastily assembled, therefore we have to contend with some mild and not-so-mild glitches arising on a daily basis. Some of the glitches are the fault of the crew. For instance, one day we approach the Hopewell side of the river and Chuck is lowering the quarter-inch plate steel ramp at the bow in preparation for landing. He slowly turns the big wheel; the ramp gets closer to the water. Suddenly the wheel is torn from Chuck’s hands and spins out of control.  I immediately know what has happened: Chuck lowered the ramp too far and it dipped into the water as the tug was moving at eight knots, resulting in the two-ton appendage folding up and breaking off under the barge, the cable flying off the drum. This little episode takes that ferry out of service for a day or two as a salvage diver is brought in to locate and retrieve said ramp, and for its reattachment to the barge.

The cantankerous diesel engine in one of the old tugs is forever overheating –so is its captain for that matter- and whenever it does, Cap’n Butch makes one of us unfortunate crewmembers unscrew the piping hot steel plug in the side of the engine block and pour gallons of water into it, all of this done in very tight quarters. It’s a tedious, scalding affair and certainly not an OSHA-approved one.

One morning as I arrive at the ferry landing in the golden light of dawn I notice some unusual commotion on the wharf. Hmmmm.  It seems that overnight one of the tugs has sunk at its berth in ten feet of water, its yellow stack the only part of it greeting the morning light. Our Captain is cussing and stomping around –don’t get in his way- then roars off in his old truck, leaving, besides a stream of profanity in his wake, me to explain to the drivers of the arriving vehicles that no, the ferry won’t be running this morning.

We have a number of regular customers on the daily ferry runs; folks commuting to work, salesmen, and repair and service people who work both sides of the river. It’s nice to get to know them. One kind lady always brings us something to eat, such as cake or fresh bread. Early one morning she surprises us with plates of pancakes and syrup.

 There’s a black Labrador retriever that lives at Jordan Point, on the Hopewell side of the river. A few weeks into my deckhand job we discover much to our amazement that this old dog can swim underwater like a fish, or so it seems. He enthusiastically dives into the river to retrieve rocks that we throw for him. That’s right, “Blackie”, with teeth worn from retrieving and carrying stones in his mouth, will dive into eight feet of water and come up with a rock, maybe not the one we dropped, but a rock nonetheless.

A pair of undertakers frequented the river crossing and they are undoubtedly the most comical of our regulars. Ribald jokes are their specialty, enjoying life their passion. To get to know these guys who are so closely involved with the business of death and yet so in love with the joy of living is a delight to me.

Speaking of love, minor affairs blossom between my fellow crew members and local girls. They lean against the railing of the barges, chatting as we cross the James, their eyes dancing and their hair tussled by the usual warm breeze. They hold hands tentatively, they laugh and make plans. Life is all good just now.

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