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24 things every Texan should do before he dies: Ride on Galveston's Bolivar Ferry

Mike Leggett, Commentary

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Deep in the belly of the Ray Stoker, a 3,000 horsepower chain saw burps, sending a rumbling shudder up through the vessel's frame. Twin screws operating amid ships like a pair of giant mix-masters fire foamy saltwater out both sides of the craft.

My weight shifts ever so slightly as the boat slows to a crawl, salt vapor sprays the deck, tiny bait fish and chips of coastal detritus boil up from below and surf away on the foam, new chum for the swarming flights of laughing gulls.

We slide between the creosote pilings, slowing, slowing, stopping against a rubber bumper. A knife in a sheath.

From the wheelhouse high above, I see the young couple break their trip-long embrace and head for their car.

Deckhands lower the steel bow plate, like a whale's bottom jaw. Jonah's leviathan spewing more than 40 trucks and cars onto Ferry Road. They look like ladybugs skittering away, each to his own destination, while the same metal jaw that just spit them out now beckons a new set of riders to enter the maw like Melville's Ahab for another run across the Bolivar Roads to Point Bolivar.

Much of historic Texas sadly is relegated to ruins and museums. The Butterfield Stage doesn't run to points west anymore. Paddle wheelers don't ply The Brazos. Steam trains are mostly a misty memory.

But here on the Gulf Coast, living history still rides the waves on the Bolivar Ferry, which operates now, as it has for the last 80 years, providing round-the-clock transit between Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.

Sometimes known as the best free ride in Texas, the Bolivar Ferry is an anachronism, a link to simpler times, before super highways and soaring bridges. A time when travelers had time to spend on an open boat going slowly from one place to another.

For me and countless others, this ferry is special. For some, it's the pleasant and peaceful way to get to Galveston from places east of Houston. For others it's a chance to see a relatively undeveloped stretch of Texas coastline. For still others, it's the sun and water, the wildlife, the smells and scenery.

For all of these reasons the Bolivar Ferry is number 16 on my list of 24 Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies. This isn't just a boat ride from island to mainland. It's a truly Texas experience and a condensation of the life on Bolivar Peninsula and the way of life on Galveston Island.

It's free, and it's fun — a slow ride through history, pirates of the Caribbean without the pirates.

When I was living in Houston, I made the crossing several times a year, riding the ferry before daylight to reach the Bolivar Pocket, prime fishing country when clear water moves in bringing speckled trout within easy range of shoreline waders.

But that's just me. Riding the ferry just for the ride is cool. You can feed popcorn to gulls off the stern and watch dolphins leap in the bow wake.

Weather the constant

If you've got the time, skip Interstate 45 south out of Houston to Galveston. Instead, drive east on Interstate 10 to Winnie, then turn south toward High Island. At the coast, follow Texas 87 southwest along the skinny barrier island masquerading as Bolivar Peninsula.

This was the land of the Atakapas, the Orcoquisas and the Karankawas. There were smugglers and soldiers, slavers and pirates. A few had marquee names like Simon Bolivar, Jean Laffite and Jane Long, the mother of Texas. Most did not.

If there's one constant along this coast, it's the weather, hurricanes and storms, tides and floods.

"Most of the time, it's pretty calm on the boat," says Stoker Capt. Will Maxey. "But in the winter, when it's foggy and dark, it can be rocking and rolling out here."

The Bolivar Lighthouse, circa 1872, signals land's end. It's bright kerosene beacon stopped operating in 1933. Today it simply waves goodbye to travelers who are about to take what everyone around here simply refers to as "the ferry."

There are actually five double-end ferries. Weather permitting, they provide round-the-clock service between the peninsula and Galveston Island.

Each ferry is a bit different, but they are about 265 feet long and 66 feet wide. Each can hold about 70 vehicles and passengers. They have been named after former Texas Transportation Commission members like Lanier, Gilchrist and Dedman. Each has a crew of six.

The crossing is neither far nor lengthy — about 2.7 miles in about 18 minutes. But it can be tricky. This is one of the busiest marine mix masters in the world, including the Bolivar Roads, Galveston, Texas City and Houston ship channels plus the Intracoastal Waterway.

Thousands of big ships pass through this intersection each year.

Marine maneuvers

Today Capt. Maxey is making one of the 40 or so crossings he will make this week. He's checking radar, logging in vehicles and keeping one eye on the sky and another on the water. Jose Tamayo pilots the Stoker. Chief Capt. Ray Herndon is along for the ride, my escort in these days of homeland super security.

As we surge away from the landing, passengers abandon their vehicles and scatter to the rails. The ship shudders and slides forward into the open water. Gulls aft. Straight ahead. Maxey is checking traffic.

In front of us is a bigger-than-huge, fully loaded container ship, bulling her way out of the Houston Ship Channel southbound for the Gulf of Mexico. Maxey manipulates a cursor on his computer radar screen, clicks and sends a blip from the Stoker to the ship, which pings him back with vital information.

Maritime law requires that every vessel moving through these shipping lanes be registered and actively use this system. Maxey's screen tells us the monster is the Box Voyager, humming along at over 11 knots as it passes just east of Seawolf Park.

"Are we going to hold back and wait for him to come by?" I ask as the giant ship looms in front of us.

"I hope so," Maxey jokes.

Tamayo changes course slightly, maneuvering the Stoker's bow to a course that will carry us behind the Box Voyager and gently across its giant wake to a safe landing on the island. Most of the passengers are oblivious to the maneuver to avoid the larger ship.

For the crew, there are four areas of concentration. The weather, marine traffic, the ship and passengers. Three of those are fairly predictable. Passengers are the wild card.

"There's all types of stuff (that happens)," Maxey says. "There are fights and arguments. One guy got beat up by about 20 people with baseball bats." Occasionally, highway patrol officers come aboard to nab a slightly daft suspect who thinks the ferry might be a quick way to escape the law.

Sex during the crossing? "Yeah. You know that goes on," Maxey says.

Told you it was fun.

mleggett@statesman.com

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct wrong information in a caption.