Winter crossings on the Delaware Bay present cold weather challenges [video]

 (photo courtesy Cape May/Lewes Ferry)

(photo courtesy Cape May/Lewes Ferry)

The Cape May Lewes Ferry operates on a reduced schedule in the winter. Partly because the demand is less and partly because there is one ship in the fleet that handles icy conditions better than any other.

Ice build up has been an issue in the Cape May Canal for the first time in several years. Port Captain Bryan McCann blames a combination of ice chunks floating down the Delaware River and high winds during high tide with blowing the ice to the shore. The subfreezing temperatures take care of the rest.

“Winds up to 45, 50 miles an hour. Wind chills [around] minus ten, minus 15 with the wind chill. Yeah, brutal,” says Joe Napoleon, permanent mate on the ferry. He says he dresses in layers and sometimes that doesn’t even help.

Mike Hughes, a maintenance specialist, says ropes used to tie up the ferries often freeze in the cold weather because of the water spray. They have to be kept in a special locker when the ships are not in the dock.

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Ice breaker

The ship of choice during the winter months is the Cape Henlopen. Ferry Captain Rick McCann says it was refurbished several years ago with a reinforced bow that can cut through ice if the need arises.

Still, the weather is tough on the ferry ships and their engines. James Gillespie, Port Engineer says this winter has presented problems. “Our maintenance department is stressed to the max”, he says. “The water pipes will freeze down on the car deck. If there’s no water to the vessel we have to switch out vessels and stop the run,” he added.

As bad as it is to work in the cold, McCann says navigating in the fog is the worse condition the ferry can operate in. He says in the summer smaller boats will think they know where they are going, and it is up to him and his crew to make sure they knew where these boats are at all times.

Winter of ’89

There has been an icing of the canal and shore areas in Cape May and Lewes in a decade, but nothing will beat the winter of 1989. Captain Dan Cluff remembers leaving Cape May for Lewes and wondering what it would be like when he returned.

“We left cape May, [at] six at night. and as we were leaving we could see the ice build,” he said. When they returned, the ice was so thick they couldn’t dock. 25 people were stranded for 5 hours until the ice in the channel could be broken up enough for the boat the dock.

For the most part it’s business as usual during the winter months. The passengers who cross are a combination of travelers heading north or south, and truckers who use the ferry as part of their regular travel route.

Dan Banks is a trucker for Shelby Trucking in Selbyville, Del. He hauls clam shells for use in hotels and other companies around southern Delaware and Ocean City, Md. He heads out at 4 a.m., drives north over the Delaware Memorial Bridge and gets to Port Norris in New Jersey three hours later.

By the time he gets on the ferry he says he has no problem with the weather. “I love taking the ferry in the cold,” he says. “I love the water and when I get on here, I just relax.”

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