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Ferry Service Returns to Pensacola Bay

Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

A new Pensacola Bay ferry operator has been selected for the 2019 season, Gulf Islands National Seashore announced last week. One aim will be to forget an unsuccessful 2018 season.

HMS Ferries Inc. has signed a 10-year deal with the National Park Service to operate Turtle Runner and Pelican Perch — the two, 150-passenger ferries for pedestrians and bicycles which were built with four million dollars from the BP oil spill settlement.

“We believe that it’s a great opportunity to help connect all those communities and provide a service to that community and to all the tourists, for obvious reasons,” said Matt Miller, President of Hornblower Maritime Services based on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

The company also operates boat cruises and ferries — among others — at Mobile Bay and Gees Bend in Alabama, the St. Johns River ferry in Jacksonville and service between Tampa and St Petersburg.

“Our goal is to be up and operating [in] mid-April; the exact date we’re still working that out,” Miller said. “I would anticipate starting the weekend-only service mid-April; we’re finalizing what that schedule will be and what the fare structure will be with the National Park Service.”

Credit hmsgm.com

The triangular route is expected to remain the same — downtown Pensacola, Pensacola Beach, and Fort Pickens. Meanwhile, one of the areas of preparation in resuming the ferry service,  hiring local staff,  already is underway.

“They have the local mileage, and we’ve become part of the community,” said Miller. “And that’s what we’re intending to do. I think people who rode the ferry last year will be surprised to see a good number of previous employees on the Pensacola Bay Cruises this year.”

As a for-profit company, the main objective of HMS Ferries is to meet and exceed their operational costs. Miller says they’re confident the schedule is laid out will enable them to achieve that goal.

“One cruise vessel running four round-trips Friday through Sunday during the ‘shoulder season;’ no service during the week,” said Miller. “And then during the peak season, we would have two cruise vessels operating on the weekend; and then four round trips during the week.”

Then in the fall, the service goes back to weekend-only. The ferries’ original operator, Gulf Coast Maritime Services, declined to sign a 10-year contract, after losing more than $300,000 during its four months of operation.

“It was just a short season, we got a late start due to quite a few different reasons,” said company owner George Aswad late last fall, before deciding to withdraw. “We had a little over 9,000 riders for the season we need about 60,000 riders to make it viable.”

Aswad went on to blame high overhead and low ridership for the rising tide of red ink, leading to his refusal to sign a ten-year contract to continue operating the service.

“A 10-year contract – that’s the standard length for a National Park Service concession,” said Dan Brown, Superintendent of Gulf Islands National Seashore which oversees Fort Pickens. “We’ve got a great operator [HMS], and these folks operate ferry and tour boat operations through the country.”

Brown adds the Park Service received multiple bidders for the contract.

“Those proposals are scored against some criteria, and then we have to go down the list, starting with the highest scoring and so forth,” Brown said. “We are very, very happy with who we’ve ended up with, they’re extremely experienced — one of the best out there.”

The deal takes effect on Tuesday and the Park Service will officially assign the boats to HMS Ferries. Brown says the ferries, berthed at Commendencia Slip at the Port of Pensacola, have been kept in shape during the off-season even without a contract.

“We have paid someone to maintain those boats during that time,” said Brown. “They would start them up, check all the systems, inspect them, and operate the boats. The new operator will take care of those boats during the off-season, so they’re well cared for.”

HMS Ferries President Matt Miller says they plan to hit the deck running for the 2019 season.

“Our marketing and our qualification systems and our maintenance systems on the boat, our HR systems – it becomes ‘turnkey’ with all of our expertise and all of our headquarters support,” said Miller. “Everything that comes with us, doing this for years and years and years around the U.S. And that really helps.”

While the fare structure has yet to be announced, it’s believed it will include tickets for regular service; all-day hop on, hop off, and discounts for military, children, seniors, and others. Also, entrance fees at Fort Pickens will again be waived for those getting there by ferry.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.