Hardly anyone will recall the days when National Airlines had it's hub out of Jacksonville, and known as the airline of the Buccaneer Trail. Few remember when Florida State Highway A-1-A which island hops from Fernandina Beach to Miami often hugging tight to the Atlantic Beaches, was christened "The Buccaneer Trail".
All of this pirate stuff was for good reason. Florida was home to the best of the worst in the buccaneer trade. The Spanish government of Florida, didn't mind if friendly buccaneers ducked into the Northeast Florida ports to resupply for attacks on British, French and Dutch shipping. Likewise, as Florida passed to British rule, there was little effort to stop the kings privateers from raiding the new US states.
Travel to San Andres Island of Captain Morgan fame, or the coastal inlets of Blackbeard in North Carolina, and you still won't get as close to these and other infamous raiders as you can along highway A-1-A.
Sail where the REAL pirates sailed, but you better come quickly...
For 50 years this route has crossed the mouth of the mighty St. Johns river East of Jacksonville, on a ferry operated by the State DOT. The ferry has been immensely popular as one can park his or her car, and sail the same waters where the pirates once played.
The along came the new governor Charlie Crist, Republican, budget cutter. Suddenly the famous sea route was cut from the state budget, forcing a 16 mile drive from Mayport to Ft. George Island, a ferry distance of perhaps 2/3 of a mile. The citizens of Jacksonville were rightly enraged at this callous attitude toward the loss, not only a vital transportation link, but a very historic attraction.
Then along came the saviour, Jacksonville Port Authority (JPA) as the City agreed to take over the ferry operations from the state and absorb the 1 Million dollar a year deficit.
Now after a couple of years of peaceful operation, the die may be cast to sink the grand old ferry for good. This article in Shorelines sounds pretty bleak.
"Ahoy Mate's, it's the Governor Christ, let em ave one cross the bow!"
By DrewDixon - Mon, 02/02/2009 - 1:39pm
The St. Johns River Ferry Service begins about a month-long shut down for maintenance beginning Thursday Feb. 5. It will be a real test for the long-term viability of the necessity of the service and the Jacksonville Port Authority's decision to get rid of a backup vessel.
The Jean Ribault goes into Atlantic Marine for the mechanical overhaul but motorists who use the service will be inconvenienced the most. From Ponte Vedra Beach to Fernandina Beach, the service has been used by motorists who prefer to use the extension of Florida A1A crossing the St. Johns River from Mayport to Fort George Island.
Not in anyone's memory that Shorelines spoke to could anyone point to a time when the Mayport ferry stopped running for an extended period of time. This shutdown will last about three weeks. Previously, the Jean Ribault was always backed up by the Blackbeard vessel. But the JPA ditched the second vessel in 2008 after purchasing the service from the city of Jacksonville in order to save funds.
If motorists get used to going westward to Florida 9-A and crossing the Dames Point bridge instead of using the ferry during its closure, there will be little demand for keeping the service running except for the civic advocates and hardcore ferry supporters. And this closure also comes during a dramatic drop in ferry ridership in the past year according the JPA's own figures.
The only way to tell if the ferry is in serious demand in these tenuous times of its 50 year history is to wait and see if ridership spikes when it returns to service in late February. If ridership drops off even more, it could prove the JPA took too many preventative measures in order to save money but ruin the novel mode of transportation. The ferry will likely not survive much longer if there is not a return to robust ridership.
Consider the facts my Jacksonville citizens or Florida visitors.
JPA took over the ailing ferry operation as a life-line for area businesses, commuters and beach goers.
To cut costs the JPA removed the back-up ferry ship "The Blackbeard", keeping only the "Jean Ribault" in service.
To further help with costs, hours were sliced and the fares were increased just in time for the latest fuel crisis.
Meanwhile the JPA has bought up all of the land from the Ferry Landing Westward along the South bank of the river at Mayport for a new cruise ship terminal.
The Cruise Ship Terminal Announcement was too much for many Mayport old timers and a near shooting war has taken place for months. Months of clearing the space for the new Bulkheads, surveys and design work.
Now suddenly the wonderful ferry has to go in for scheduled repairs, and we no longer have a back-up ship. 45 days without the ferry will probably do what the schedule cuts and fare hikes couldn't do, kill it for good.
Losing the ferry will have a great negative impact on the communities at the mouth of the river, on the beaches, on tourism. Ending this will kill perhaps our most marketable tour for cruise passengers willing to stay over a few days and spend some money locally.
Though this blog is a rabid supporter of JAXPORT and the JPA Cruise Terminal at Mayport, We will NOT support removing the ferry. JAXPORT needs to bring in some long-range consultants with tourism experience and allow them to experience this famous highway from Fernandina Beach, over the ferry to Mayport, the Jacksonville Beaches all the way to St. Augustine. Then ask the opinion of the real tourism experts if this isn't going to shoot ourselves in the foot. Once again shortsightedness may cause us to stumble. Just as we finally achieve a major tourist destination in the cruise port, we tear out the most interesting and historic reason to hang around and spend.
The Jean Ribault