One of my favorite field trips in elementary school was the day we were piled into the water taxi to cross the Cape Fear River for a visit to the USS NC Battleship. I think it was the first time I actually was “on the water” of the Cape Fear River. It completely changed the way I viewed my hometown. I don’t think I fully realized that a river really is a highway of water with vessels in constant motion, in attempt to get goods and people to places and destinations. Considering our city is situated on a little peninsula entirely because the Cape Fear River meets the Atlantic Ocean, it seems like my life has remained oddly oblivious to the essential roles the river, ocean and port play.
With that in mind, a little while back, I included a ride on the water taxi as one of the 50 experiences I sought in Wilmington per a new year’s resolution. Wilmington Water Tours had announced they were opening a water taxi service, and it seemed like something worth revisiting. Of course, with the best intentions, it took me a lot longer than I expected to make it to the water taxi. Then fellow encore writer and good friend John Wolfe started driving for Wilmington Water Tours.
Oh, hell! I thought. I really have to get moving on that story.
So on a movie-perfect morning last week, I stood on the Riverwalk in front of the Hilton at the well-marked sign for the Busy Bee Water Taxi, and watched the blue and white boat glide through the river, arcing beautifully to dock almost at my feet. John came bounding up the ramp, followed by two handsome young men. The sun painted the world to look like the most nostalgic post card imaginable. I bought a day pass for $10 and embarked on a trip across the river toward the Battleship.
“We wanted to accommodate people—get them out on the water and make it easier for people to get to the Battleship,” Wilmington Water Tours partner Mary DeLollo notes. “We try to mirror the house of the Battleship operation.”
Originally, I planned to take the water taxi to visit the Battleship myself (like my elementary-school field trip), but other factors were at play. So. instead of disembarking. I enjoyed what DeLollo referred to as “a little harbor cruise.”
The water taxi stops at Hilton, the Battleship, the foot of Market Street, and Chandler’s Wharf. For a little over an hour, my perception of my hometown reshaped itself while visiting spots I have known all my life. I noted how the streets flowed uphill, away from the river in almost perfect parallel lines, and points of commerce that caught my eye varied from the map I carry in my head.
“It’s how people used to see it for the first time,” one of the mates comments.
He was right. How have I become so disconnected from what has made our city viable? I know Cape Fear River Watch offers a paddle series partly to get people out on the water and connected with the river—so they will begin to see it as a real, tangible entity that literally flows through our veins from our drinking water. Somehow, still, I keep picturing the ribbon of green and brown at the foot of Market Street rather than seeing it as the life blood of our community.
“So you guys cruise around the river all day and see if anyone wants to take a ride?” I ask.
“Pretty much,” they respond.
“My gods—what a great job!”
“Well, yes, Gwenyfar,” John agrees. “But you picked an almost perfect day. When the wind is against the tide …” his voice trails off.
He was debating explaining to a complete neophyte the intricacies of navigating a tidal river. We docked by the Battleship, as he explained when the tide goes out, the dock can be a bank of mud and very little water.
“Ah, so that’s what they have been talking about with the Battleship mooring these last few years?” I ask.
John nodded, pleased I was grasping a fragment of what nature exacted from the people who chose to face her demands on a daily basis. I started to ask more questions about the Battleship, the dock and how to handle a vessel that works all day long. But John needed to drive the boat. So he flashed a disarming grin to let me think it looks so easy. Just like ballet: If you are doing it right, it looks effortless, when in fact there is a tremendous amount of training and discipline essential to keeping the boat afloat and the passengers safe.
When you think about it, getting from one side of the river to the other is a pretty ancient human need. With bridges and the modern dependence on cars, we take it for granted. But it has also allowed us to pay less attention to the river as a source not only for our drinking water, but also the delivery of most goods we depend upon for daily survival. The crew on board take time to explain movement and storage of oil and fuel on the river. In the back of my head, I knew oil moved on board ships and would have to be unloaded and stored somewhere near a port, but the specifics managed to remain sufficiently vague—in spite of the joy I get every time I crank the motor on my VW bug.
“I guess I should be more mindful of the chain of events that make a spark possible,” I chide myself.
We docked at the foot of Market by the Venus Flytrap sculpture and a family joined us. They snapped pictures and chattered with excitement.
Passengers can take the water taxi for transportation from one shore to the other or just to enjoy the river, like I did. In addition, the taxi will take them to where the big catamaran tour boat departs. DeLollo notes how Wilmington Water Tours hopes to expand the service of the water taxi in the next few years—possibly to include Wrightsville and Carolina beaches.
For now the Bizzy Bee Water Taxi is buzzing along our Riverfront to help access the Battleship but, more importantly, enliven many lives. DeLollo says they’ve had several people get engaged on the water taxi already. Beautiful.
“Will you come back and see us again?” one of the mates asks when I disembark.
“Oh, I think I have to. This is one of the best days I’ve had in a long time. Thank you.”
But for now I need to go home and think for a bit about the generations of people who have depended upon the river for their livelihoods and remind myself that whether I realize it or not, I do too.