Forty years after the first vision and about five years of preparation and delays, Pensacola’s ferry system is ready to shove off on Friday. The launch ceremony was held at Fort Pickens on Wednesday.
Dan Brown, Superintendent of Gulf Islands National Seashore, served as master of ceremonies.
“Today is proof that all the stars can align and dreams can come true,” said Brown. GINS is one of the three stops the two, 145-passenger ferries – Turtle Runner and Pelican Perch – will make on their triangular 45-minute voyages for pedestrians and bicycles.
The ball started rolling for ferry service began during completion of the park’s long-range general management plan which had been in development for eight years by 2010. It contained an “oh, by the way” passage discovered by Brown’s staff.
“We just received a federal grant for $2.8 million to build a new ferry pier and other ferry-related facilities,” said Brown. “If Washington, D.C. had approved money for a ferry pier, obviously that meant we were supposed to have ferry service.”
“This is an incredible opportunity in Pensacola, Florida; and today, this is an incredible day to celebrate what we did together as a community,” said Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward.
“Sincerely, this has been amazing; everything that we set out to do, we’ve done it,” Hayward said. “This is a huge win, Pensacola.”
The system will be administered by the National Park Service; City of Pensacola, and Escambia County. Gulf Coast Maritime Services will handle the day-to-day operations as Pensacola Bay Cruises. Capt. George Aswad is the firm’s President and CEO, and is a 40-year veteran of the boating tour and ferry business.
“My wife’s uncle was in the Blue Angels, and we came here about five years ago to visit the [National Aviation] Museum,” Aswad said. “And I said to her then, ‘This would be a beautiful place to run one of our businesses and to eventually move here.’ And sure enough, five years later we’re very thankful to the National Park Service as the concessionaire with this ferry service.”
Upon receiving the contract to run the boats, Aswad began the search for a local workforce, and received an impressive response.
“This is one of the best workforces we have seen in the last 40 years I’ve been in business – at least with the marine industry,” said Aswad. “We had over 300 applications come in; we’ve hired 31 people so far, all locals. And we’re very, very happy at what we’ve seen here so far.”
All-day tickets – where you can hop-on and hop-off – are $20 for adults, and includes admission to Gulf Islands National Seashore
Active-duty military and seniors will pay $18.50; children’s tickets are $13, and kids two years old and under will sail for free.
“There’s a lot more to come in the future; this is just the beginning for us here,” said Aswad. “We’re going to be adding a few more boats next year to the fleet; we’re really excited. I’m here permanently, living here now and I just can’t wait to get started.”
Gulf Islands Superintendent Dan Brown wrapped up his remarks to the audience with an invitation and challenge to both visitors and residents, using a quote from the movie “Field of Dreams.”
“If you build it, they will come,” said Brown. “So come; come ride the ferry – ride it often. Bring your family; invite your friends, tell others. We have what few other communities have, and now we have a very special way to enjoy them.”
Turtle Runner and Pelican Perch will offer daily service through August 15 this year, and weekends through October 31. In 2019, weekend service is mid-March through mid-May and mid-August through October. Weekday service next year will be from mid-May through mid-August.