Iconic vessels link island with peninsula and offer a fun, free trip
Until the unlikely day, far in the future, when a new bridge arches over the big ships and maritime traffic in the Galveston Ship Channel, state Highway 87 will link Galveston Island and Port Bolivar with a fleet of ferry boats.
For tourists, residents and commuters, these iconic vessels provide a 20-minute interlude on the waters of the bay, and the only direct motor route along this part of the coast.
For deckhand Xavien Allen, 24, the ferry service provides an enjoyable step along his career path in the maritime industry.
“I love just being on the water, and every day is a different experience,” said Allen, watching the sunrise under spectacular clouds at the end of his recent night shift aboard the 265-foot John W. Johnson.
Allen grew up in the Dallas area, far from the ocean, but at the age of 13 he joined a Sea Scout group operating on Lake Ray Hubbard. He thrived in the program, learning sailing and motor boating under the guidance of the group’s leader, billionaire Charles Doolin. Allen stuck with it, and earned his Quartermaster badge, on par with Eagle Scout as the highest award in scouting.
After graduating high school, Allen enrolled at a local college. Doolin’s commitment to Sea Scouting, meanwhile, had grown to the point that he and his wife, Rosemary, decided to build Sea Scout Base Galveston on Offatts Bayou, probably the most extensive and ambitious Sea Scout base in the nation. He offered Allen a job with the project.
Allen didn’t hesitate to join his mentor on the coast, and left college to follow his dream of a life on the water.
Working with the larger boats at the base, as well as the fleets of small sailing craft, and taking classes and exams, Allen got his 100-ton operator’s certificate from the U.S. Coast Guard. The next step on his path is to secure his 1600-ton license, which requires, among other things, sea time on larger vessels.
Work as a deckhand on the Galveston-Port Bolivar ferry fleet fit that bill.
In a year or so, Allen will qualify to sit for his upgraded license, and be eligible to captain the vessel himself, or to take charge of one of the other craft that ply the harbor, such as tugs and oil service boats. He could also ship out as a mate on oceangoing ships, but he doesn’t intend to do that.
“My girlfriend wouldn’t like it if I went away to sea,” he said.
From the time of Charon, who ferried newly deceased souls across the river Styx to Hades in Greek mythology, ferries have had a central role in human imagination and transportation systems. The invention of the first steam powered ferry in New York in 1811 ushered in the modern era of dependably scheduled ferry boats crossing all the great harbors of the world.
Slightly later came the innovation that, like many brilliant ideas, seems obvious only after someone has thought of it: the double-ended ferry, such as the Galveston boats, which exchange stem for stern on each trip and can load and discharge passengers and cars from either end. This saves a tremendous amount of time, and sea room in a crowded harbor, as the ferry doesn’t have to turn around at each crossing.
Galveston didn’t enter the era of ferry boats until 1929, when a private company started a service to Bolivar Peninsula. It proved not to be a moneymaking operation, and in 1930 it was sold to the Texas Department of Transportation. Initially, the state charged 25 cents for a passage. It wasn’t a moneymaker for the state, either, and in 1929 the fee was dropped. It’s free, in other words, and it’s more fun. Just ask Xavien Allen.