You trundle down Route 5 long enough in James County, VA, and you‘ll hit the James River - a broad expanse of water where some of the very first colonists made their home in the once and future United States 400 years ago at the appropriately-named Jamestown nearby.
However, the highway doesn‘t end here - it can‘t, frankly, for it picks up on the other side of the river outside Surry, VA, about five miles downstream. To connect those two disparate highway halves is where the ferries come in - the only 24/7 ferry system operating in the Commonwealth of Virginia today.
I take my family on the Jamestown-Scotland ferry several times a year (so-called because the ferry departs from the Jamestown and Scotland Wharf pier on the Surry side of the river, hence the use of the name 'Scotland' in its title) but the four craft plying their trade down here aren‘t built for joyrides. Operated by a staff of 90 from the Virginia Department of Transportation (which has run the ferry system since 1945), these low, flat, bulky water craft form a critical commuter and freight link over the James River, shuttling tractor-trailers, contractors, and everyday folks going from home to job and back again every day.
Four ferries navigate the 15-minute run over the James River: the Pocahontas, built in 1995, which carries 70 cars; the Surry, built in 1979, which carries 50 cars; the Williamsburg, built in 1983, which carries 50 cars; and the Virginia, built in 1936 and still running strong, handles just 28 cars.
While it‘s surely a scenic trip - the seagulls effortlessly tracking the wakes of the big ships, as the river slowly undulates away from the bows - security is tight. In 2004, new, security measures went into effect, resulting in armed guards patrolling both docks, carefully screening cars and trucks to prevent dangerous substances and devices from boarding the ferry - all in accordance with the Maritime Transportation Security Act, These measures include checking picture IDs of the driver and passengers, plus comprehensive inspections of vehicles, including under the hood, trunk and undercarriage, along with cargo trailers.
Ah, but it‘s done with professionalism and class, with the guards patiently explaining the procedures to those who ask, making sure delays are kept to a minimum. They wave at the kids and are very polite to one and all, staying civil and courteous in spite of the serious nature of their work.
Like big trucks, the ferries wade back and forth on their route, with the skilled helmsmen docking them so expertly that they bump the dock with barely a tremor or ripplein the water. The ramps raise up to link with the dock, and then we file off slowly, winding our ways - freight carriers and tourists alike - to our various destinations. Until another day and another trip across the river.