Reggie Kirton is Jamestown Ferry’s newest captain and at 29, one of the youngest since the operation’s first boat sailed across the James River in the 1920s.
The Portsmouth native was 19 when he stumbled into the industry. He was prepared to attend art school in the fall and volunteered as a reenactor, portraying an 18th-century mariner during the summer.
“We passed the Schooner American Rover and I was like, I’m reenacting as a sailor, maybe I can get some experience,” Kirton said.
Kirton jumped on the boat for a cruise and never left the water.
He worked as a deckhand, raising sails and helping moor the boat, on the American Rover. After a decade of accumulated time on the water, he can now captain any boat that weighs 1,600 tons or less.
The United States Coast Guard licenses mariners based on boat size. At 21, Kirton received his first 100-ton master license, which means he could captain any vessel that weighed up to 100 tons, the size of a small tour vessel. He used this license to captain the Portsmouth Ferry for three years.
Each threshold of new licensure requires more sea time doing particular jobs on the boat, Kirton said.
“It’s not a career to try to jump into and think you’re going to end up in the pilot house the next day,” he said.
Kirton is a junior captain of one of the seven crews that keeps the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry running, and he’s in position to take the wheel full-time when another captain leaves.
Run by the Virginia Department of Transportation, the free ferry service operates 24 hours a day, every day of the year and transports about a million cars across the 2-mile stretch from James City County to Surry County.
“I pretty much would keep looking to do this until I retire, which is 30 years of driving a boat across the same stretch of river,” Kirton said.
What the job may lack in variety it makes up for in stability. Most people in the maritime industry don’t get to sleep in their own beds at night.
Kirton worked on tugboats with the Norfolk Tug Company, Intracoastal Marine and Seaward Marine Corporation and would be away from his wife for weeks at a time.
“Did I say enough about my wife? I love her, she’s wonderful. Every captain will tell you that he’s married to two women: your wife and whatever boat it is you’re working on,” Kirton said. “She’s had to put up with the competition of every boat I’ve ever worked on and most of them get more of my time than she does.”
Although ferry captains return home more often, because the ferry operates every day of the year, the crew is on the water rain or shine. Dewayne Walls, a Navy veteran and captain of six years, said driving in everything from wind and rain to fog takes a particular skill.
“You have to be a really good boat driver, and you’re dealing with a lot of conditions,” Walls said. “Reggie has always shown promise. It’s not for everybody, not a lot of people can do this.”
Kirton spends most of his days in the wheelhouse with a front-row seat to the seasons’ change. He and his crew of six men — two deckhands, a mate, oiler and engineer — rotate four shifts with the other crews, so someone is always there to get the ferry across.
“Any day that it’s really crummy outside and it’s raining or it’s snowing and you’re in your house thinking to yourself how great it is that you’re not outside, there is some poor soul, sometimes me, on the ferry,” Kirton said. “But we’re happy to do it.”
His mate Bill Bailey said there’s more to the job than parking cars. They often act as Virginia ambassadors. Bailey, a former firefighter, has even delivered a baby onboard.
“This lady hadn’t lived here long and she didn’t know how long it was going to take I guess and she ended up having it on this boat,” Bailey said. “You never know what you’re going to get here. We look like a motley crew, but we can handle quite many emergencies.”
Bailey said Kirton has the respect of the crew because he knows how to talk to everyone. The crew’s youngest member is 19 and the oldest is 72.
“Reggie is an old soul. He really is, he doesn’t act his age and because of that people listen to him,” Bailey said. “He’s always constructive, he’s not one of those people that’s going to holler and scream.”
And he’s one of the better captains, he said. But in the maritime industry, you’re only as good as your last docking.
“I really enjoy boat handling, I enjoy what I do,” Kirton said. “People would think it’s boring but you get different cars, different people. The beautiful days certainly make up for the crummy ones.”
Ferry Facility manager Wes Ripley said Kirton is eager to learn and hone his craft. And his crew agrees he couldn’t be more deserving of the captain seat.
“Nobody gave him anything, he earned it. It’s the truth,” Bailey said. “You’ll have to put that on the record.”
Martin can be reached at (757)-243-3685, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SaraRoseMartin.