Every time I listen to that great 1965 British Invasion song “Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey” by Gerry and The Pacemakers I think of some of my happiest times growing up. Near the mouth of the St. Johns River, east of Jacksonville there is a gem of history that still lives today. The St. Johns River Ferry is a car and passenger ferry that connects the north and south ends of Florida State Road A1A in Duval County, linking Mayport Village and Fort George Island via a pleasant sail across the St. Johns River.
Left: The current ferry the Jean Ribault, does not have the upper deck that it did in my youth. In this fast paced world, most travelers miss that nearly one mile voyage across the St. Johns River because the ferry takes 15 minutes to load up the waiting cars on one shore, cross the river and unload on the other side. So the wait to board the ferry could be as long as a half hour. I must admit that it has been fifty years since I have crossed the river on that ferry. But I remember the last time like it was yesterday.
Just getting to the south landing of the ferry was a joy for me, because Highway A1A wound its way past Chicopit Bay, around the southwest end of Runway 5 – 23 at Mayport Naval Station, and if I was lucky there would be a mass takeoff or landing of a carrier air group as one of the big carriers was approaching or leaving port. During the cold war, it was common for all the planes to fly to the base while the carrier was docked. The reason for that is that planes cannot land or take off while the carrier is in port and they needed to be ready at all times to fly in defense of our country. Most of the planes were jets but there were a few propeller driven aircraft serving out the end of their military careers. Regardless it was a thrill for an aviation oriented kid to see that S2F, Douglas A-1 (AD) Skyraider. But If I was lucky enough to see one of the new McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms, my day was made. For a jet fighter, that baby was huge and had a double engine roar to match.
While waiting in the parking lot to board the ferry, I had a great vantage point just northwest of the middle of the runway to observe across the village the air operations at the Naval Station. That half hour wait flew past and it was time for Dad to crank up the car and drive across the ramp onto the big platform of the ferry. Back in those days, the ferry had an observation deck complete with benches above the automobile deck so as soon as it was safe, we would be out of the car and up on the deck ready for the crossing. There was no way I was going to stay seated on a bench, I was immediately at the rail watching the deck crew unhook the huge rope hawsers and mooring lines so that the pier crews could haul them in and prepare for the next crossing.
Next would come a big puff of diesel smoke from the ferry’s stacks and we would be on our way with a blast from the ship’s horn. The ever present pelicans and seagulls would rocket into the air from their perches on the rugged wooden pilings at the edge of the docs. It was feeding time as many passengers would eat a picnic lunch during the crossing. It was glorious, a bright sun in the windswept blue sky. The smell of salt air and sawgrass mixed with the sweet and savory perfumes of the mustard laden sandwiches, chips, cookies and the Cokes, Pepsis and the occasional Orange Crush.
As soon as the ferry cleared the dock, it would make a 45 degree turn to the left (port to all the sailors out there) to make its way up river to the northern terminal which was actually almost due west of the terminal we just left. If we were really lucky that day there would be a freighter or a tanker making its way out of the port of Jacksonville and we would have to navigate around it, adding up to five minutes to the journey.
Before long, the other landing would be in sight and the Ferry Captain would sound that big horn again as he turned the ship to the right (starboard, I know) to line up with the docs and carefully kiss the loading dock with the bow of the ship and hold it there while the deck crews placed the hawsers and mooring lines on their respective mooring posts on deck and winch them in tight to lock the ferry to the shore.
Next the ramp would be swung out to the lip of the deck and be secured. And just like that it was all over. Everyone climbed down the stairs to the car deck, packed up their picnic lunches and drove off onto the northern end of A1A at Clapboard Creek. For us, it was a short trip up to the beach on Little Talbot Island for the afternoon, or if we were just out for a Sunday drive, a long drive back to Jacksonville via Hecksher Drive. The expressway didn’t go out that way very far. The construction of I-95 was not compete so it was mostly surface roads back to downtown and then over the viaduct to Riverside and Lake Shore. Sitting here some 275 miles from Mayport and 120 miles from the Atlantic, I can still feel the sea breeze, see the seagull circling around in the sunlight, hear his cries and the sounds of the harbor and smell the mustard and sea air. Oh MY!