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Ferry faces many winter challenges
High winds, ice keep ferry crews on alert
By RICHARD DEGENER Staff Writer, (609) 463-6711, E-Mail

LOWER TOWNSHIP - Bobbi Young thought she had seen just about everything during her years working on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. Pods of whales, dolphins, giant sea turtles and breathtaking sunsets are standard fare during the summer months.

But don't tell Young there's nothing going on in winter. Just last week she saw a seal basking on an ice floe in the middle of the Delaware Bay.

"It felt like you were in Antarctica," Young said.

When most people think of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry they think of summer. But, guess what? There may not be many customers in the winter, but the ferry keeps plugging along.

Sure, it's cold. Sure, there's ice. And a prevailing northwest wind with nothing to stop it in the wide-open Delaware Bay assaults every square inch of uncovered skin.

That's why some people love it. Amid the assault on her nerve endings, Young, who works as a seaman/lifeboatman for the ferry, knows she is alive. Winter won't let her forget it.

"It can get hard out here in winter but it sure beats working in an office," Young said.

Some winters are worse than others. So far this winter is shaping up as one of the hardest.

And while it is not unusual to have 40-knot winds from the northwest, that is not the biggest problem. East winds actually cause bigger swells to come in from the Atlantic Ocean, and produce a rougher ride. The MV Cape Henlopen, the only vessel operating this winter, can handle the northwest winds.

"The winds have to hit 60-knots before we even talk about shutting down," Capt. Robert Vance said.

The main reason the Cape Henlopen is the winter vessel is it is the only one with a type of cooling system less susceptible to being clogged with slushy ice.

And while high winds present a challenge for the ferry, the biggest winter menace is ice.

This year, with low temperatures for extended periods of time, ice already has led to some crossings being canceled.

Young said after one crossing last week there was so much ice in the Cape May Canal it took more than two hours to dock the vessel. Captains sometimes have to wait for a change in the tides or for a tugboat to break up the ice.

Wind direction often determines how troublesome the ice will be.

On the New Jersey side, winds from the west or northwest are the biggest enemy. The northwest wind can back up ice from the shore to 3 or 4 miles out. A straight westerly wind, especially in conjunction with an ebb tide, can push ice right into the Cape May Canal.

"You have ice out there still trying to get into the canal but it has nowhere to go. The ice starts piling on itself and you get a wall of ice 3 to 5 feet thick," Vance said.

The worst thing about this situation is it creates what Vance calls "hard ice" or "pack ice."

Ice blown here by a northwest wind was formed up the bay where there is less salt in the water.

Less salinity makes ice form at a higher temperature and in winter this ice is often much harder than the ice forming from seawater.

It takes lower temperatures for seawater to turn to ice, so it is often soft and slushy compared with the ice blowing here from the Delaware River region. The ferry typically runs through more of the softer ice in east, southeast winds and the hard ice in west, northwest winds.

"Ice breaking depends on the density. If it's 5- to 6-feet thick and soft you go right through it. If it's 2-feet thick and dense, you probably can't go through it," Vance said.

One thing a ferry captain doesn't want to do in thick ice is stop. It is usually better to keep moving. Vance said in some rare cases they have a boat run ahead of the ferry to break the ice.

Captains know what kind of ice they have run through. Vance said "you can just feel it" after years on the water. If it is the hard ice, then soundings of all compartments in the hull must be done to make sure there is no breach.

Winter operations involve many such tasks. Snow has to be shoveled from the decks and thrown overboard. Rock salt is broadcast around the decks.

Vance said they constantly check the piping for fire hoses, water and sewer lines to make sure they are clear. Many of them are out in the open, subject to the freezing temperatures.

The Delaware side of the bay has fewer ice hazards. Part of the reason is a large breakwater at the Harbor of Refuge, which blocks northeast winds, and a series of rock piles known as "The Shears."

"They were constructed to break up the ice," Vance said.

There can still be ice in Lewes but it generally doesn't extend as far out into the bay.

Jack Hanley, a captain/pilot from Delaware, said the farthest the ice extends from shore in Lewes is 1.5 miles. Still, it means captains have to dock the huge vessels while negotiating the ice, and that makes it tricky.

"You're dealing with 45-mile winds and freezing conditions while trying to dock boats that have a lot of sail area. Also in winter you have northwest blow-out tides and there isn't much water," Hanley said.

Regular winter customers seem to appreciate the effort.

Vally Leonard, a Maryland resident who often takes the ferry to visit friends in Cape May County, said she has witnessed the efforts to break up ice just to keep the boats running. Leonard said she could drive around but would rather take the ferry. She spends the whole crossing on an outside deck no matter what the weather.

"It's cold. It can be nasty. I've crossed in some real bad storms and halfway across I wished I'd driven. One time I threw up. But I like the boat ride. I like being out on the water," Leonard said.


Pete OK'd cutting here

Wildwood resident Joe McGettigan said he has seen it take 45 minutes just to bust through the ice in the Cape May Canal. He doesn't care.

"We're regulars," said McGettigan, who was with his wife Kathleen.

Sue Hickman West of Bethany Beach, Del. looked at it as "an adventure" even as she fought feeling seasick from the roll of the boat. Her boyfriend, Ed Smythe, took a deep breath out on deck.

"There is a beauty about the ocean. I love the low-tide marsh smell," said Smythe.

Some passengers don't much care that it's winter because of the final destination.

"I like the ferry boat because I get to stay over at Nanny's," said John Winter IV.

The three-year-old takes the ferry every week and knows the end of the trip is a visit with his grandfather John Winter Jr., or "Poppy," and great grandparents, John Winter Sr. and Joyce, or "Nanny" and "Great Poppy" of Rio Grande.
 

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Regarding the comment about seeing a seal on the ice while on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, I was astounded to see a seal this weekend on the beach in Stone Harbor. It was swimming happily in the surf and came right up on the beach when it saw me; rascal made a beeline from the water right to my feet, belly-flopping up the sand and rolled on its back as if to say "go ahead, scratch my belly". Damnedest thing I've ever seen, quite gray in color, about 3.5 feet in length, and quite plump. It rolled around in the sand for a minute, seemed to have no fear whatsoever. It did not appear to be injured or in distress. A woman walking her dog approached and the seal decided it was time to split, so it flopped back down the beach and swam off...never seen a seal in all the winters I've been here. I guess with the ocean temperatures in the 30s it's cold enough...
 
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