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Lots of boats come to Oriental, some tie up at the Town Dock for a night or two, others drop anchor in the harbor for a while. If you've spent any time on the water you know that every boat has a story. The Shipping News on TownDock.net brings you the stories of the boats that have visited recently.

Riding The Ferry - With The Captain
A Crew's Eye View
February 28, 2016

times a day, ferries cross the Neuse River between Minnesott Beach and Cherry Branch. That’s 27 runs in each direction.

One day in February, the NC Ferry division let TownDock.net come along for the ride. Upstairs. With the Captain.

The vessel – Chicamacomico. Two captains shared the duties. Both with roots in Oriental families.

ferry captain
Master C. Tyler Thomas is the grandson of the late Joe Harris who operated the canvas shop at the foot of the Oriental bridge with his wife, Elizabeth. Thomas is a ten-year veteran with the ferry system. He lives in Bettie, NC (between Beaufort and Marshallberg).
ferry captain
Master Martin Wing is the son-in-law of long time Oriental restaurateurs Brantley and Sylvia Norman. Wing, who has more than 4 decades experience, lives in Oriental.

The Friday of this voyage came after a stormy night – more than 3 inches of rain and 29 mph winds gusts. The morning was still windy. According to Thomas, “Wind is is the most common weather condition that will stop the ferry. If the wind blows too much water in, and the boat’s deck is above the highest level of the loading ramp, we have to shut down. Then again, if a southwest wind blows too much water out, and the deck is below the lowest level of the ramp, then we have to shut down.”

Veteran ferry riders may pay little attention to what the boat is doing, except when it is docking. We might take note of how well the boat slips between the pilings and right under the waiting loading ramp.

On this Friday, Thomas did just that – guiding the Chicamacomico past the pilings, not into them, before tucking in just beneath the ramp.

Add heavy wind, and docking can be even more of a challenge for ferry captains.

“Imagine a boat like a flat-bottomed Carolina skiff with a gigantic sail on it.” Thomas said, “Try docking something like that in the wind. A ferry has no dead rise and this superstructure is like a giant sail. And on top of that, we don’t have an overload of power either. We simply judge the wind and counter it with our course so we can get in safely. Going into Cherry Branch is harder than Minnesott because we have to make a ninety degree turn to dock.”

Leaving Cherry Branch on this morning required both captains, Wing and Thomas. There was a challenge. When shore personnel pushed the button to raise the ramp, nothing happened.

The Cherry Branch terminal building is undergoing a complete renovation right now, and it was assumed that construction workers had somehow interrupted electrical power to the ferry ramp. Captain Thomas positioned himself on the deck and supervised a resourceful solution to the problem; he directed crew members to connect a cable from the ferry’s power supply to the ramp. It worked.

By this time, the boat was 6 minutes late for its scheduled departure. As Thomas directed the operation on the deck to supply power to the ramp, Wing positioned himself in the pilot house so the ferry could get underway immediately when the ramp was cleared from the ferry’s deck. He radioed the Kinnekeet and advised them that the Chicamacomico would be late exiting the Cherry Branch channel. The incoming Kinnekeet maintained a position just north of the channel until the Chicamacomico had passed, en route to Minnesott.

The Kinnekeet holds its position just beyond the channel into the Cherry Branch terminal as the Chicamacomico passes the outer marker of the Cherry Branch channel.

With that issue resolved, one might think the ferry crews are lulled back into boring complacency. Not so, Thomas says. “My trips are usually very routine and the work is repetitive, but my job is to get back and forth safely. Like an airline pilot, I am totally accountable for everyone on the boat and that means all of the time. The crossing is only 15 minutes, but if anything happens, it falls on me. You can’t be asleep, especially working at night; you have to be really alert and at places, like at Hatteras, even more so, because of tides and changing channels.”

He added, “It may look routine, but the captain is responsible during every second of every trip.”

There isn’t a wheel – it is a “steering handle” which responds to a slight touch.
While it’s a short voyage across the Neuse, all kinds of conditions, especially at night, make the compass and a GPS useful.
It’s not typically used, but the Chicamacomico is equipped with a bow thruster.


Thomas started what would become his career on the water when he was just 12. He fished with others and fished commercially through high school. But he said after graduation, his family told him, “You have to get a real job.” He married a young lady form Bettie and they live there now with their two children. The youngest had his first birthday this month.

Thomas is upbeat about his job. “I love this. I am working outdoors, plus I love running this boat. On my off time, I get to work as a hunting and fishing guide. I hope I can retire from doing this.” Crew members work seven 12 hour days and are off for 7 days.

A deckhand guides a vehicle in.
Back up systems support the ferry. Below deck, down one flight of stairs in the engine room, the engineer can operate the boat with an over-ride throttle and steering system, can even dock the boat as he is telegraphed signals from the pilot house should there be an equipment failure topside. Ricky Graham was the engineer for the Chicamacomico on this run.

Ferry engineer Ricky Graham received the Governor’s award for heroism in 1987 as a result of his immediate response and courage in the face of a life threatening situation. One summer evening, the ferry was docked at Minnesott waiting to begin a run to Cherry Branch. Graham, from Mill Creek, had gone to the terminal building to get a snack when he saw a young man running along the fence on the eastern side of the terminal facilities. He learned that some high school students were swimming on the east side of Wilkinson’s Point and a girl was in trouble.

“I ran over there, took my shoes off, and took off in the direction they told me she was. Immediately, I found out why she had gotten in trouble. Water on that side of the point back then had to have been about ten feet deep. I saw her but when I reached here, she had swallowed so much water, it was just gushing out of her mouth. I held her up out of the water as Pedro was flying over. A boat from Camp Sea Gull came up to me and picked her up.”

“Later, some of her relatives came to the terminal to thank me. She was 18 years old, ready to graduate from high school the next day. They told me she was alive, but that it was touch and go. She had swallowed so much salt water that her lungs had been deprived of oxygen. And they were afraid she might develop pneumonia.”

“But that didn’t happen. She recovered.”

Thomas says his rescues have been less dramatic. For example, one man jumped overboard, not because he was trying to drown, but apparently because alcohol had given him a bold sense of bravado.

The ferry has four engines. Two generators that supply electrical power and two Caterpillar 3408s (above), 8 cylinder 375 hp diesels for propulsion.
Frank Smith, Jr. from Newport is the oiler on this shift of the Chicamacomico. He maintains fluid levels in all the engines and according to him, “I do what he tells me to do,” pointing to Graham. The oiler serves as the assistant to the engineer.
Billy Perry waits for the Captain’s command to raise the gate. Perry is in charge of security at the Minnesott terminal.
The Chicamacomico, is pronounced “Chick-uh-ma-com-e-co.”

The Chicamacomico has deck space for 26 single passenger vehicles, is rated to carry 149 passengers. Weighing in at 275 tons, the ferry is 150 feet long, with a 42-foot beam and 4 foot draft. It is adorned with the logo for the University of North Carolina at Asheville. Each of the NC ferries supports one of the state’s public universities.

The Chicamacomico is what is called a Hatteras class ferry. Hatteras class vessels all have a draft of only 4 feet, designed for the shallow waters and shifting shoals. Built in 1990, it is one of the oldest vessels still operating in the NC Ferry System.

Posted Sunday February 28, 2016 by Ben Casey

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