This is the first in a series of stories on the barges of St. John.
Unless you live on St. John, it may be hard to believe that a photo taken of a deck of a barge could send hearts fluttering, but it’s true.
On Aug. 9, Love City Car Ferries Inc. posted a photo on Facebook of the deck of a barge being built for the company at a boatyard in Alabama, and the “likes” and heart icons started piling up on social media.
The news of a new barge coming into operation arrived during a particularly bad week for residents, visitors, and businesses that depend on barge service between St. John to St. Thomas.
Love City Car Ferries’ M/V Capt. Vic had been taken out of service on Wednesday for repairs, according to Anecia Sewer, the company’s vice president and CEO. That meant only one barge was left to bring food, fuel, and construction materials to St. John, to return tourists in rental vehicles to the airport on St. Thomas, and to transport full-to-the brim garbage bins to the Bovoni Landfill.
Sewer said the Capt. Vic had been operating almost nonstop since Hurricane Irma struck in September 2017 and was overdue for maintenance.
“It’s only been out of service for two days, but I know it feels like two months,” said Sewer on Friday.
The Capt Vic was back in operation by Saturday evening, but long lines at the barge docks are not yet over. Global Marine LLC, which operates the M/V General II – the only other barge now in service – announced that its vessel will go into dry dock for its regular Coast Guard Inspection on Thursday.
The fleet of six barges – operated by three family-owned businesses on St. John – was nearly destroyed by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Those vessels that weren’t damaged by the winds of Irma were sunk by the storm surge of Maria. Only two barges survived.
Prior to the storm, barges departed from the terminals at Red Hook and Cruz Bay every half-hour from dawn through nightfall. Since the the storm, the three companies have been struggling to get back to their regular schedules.
Love City Car Ferries
Until the hurricanes, Love City operated the Capt. Vic, which could hold approximately 35 cars, and the Island Vic, which could carry about 28 cars.
The Island Vic was sunk during the 2017 hurricanes and was considered a complete loss, said Sewer.
“Once our insurance was settled, we invested our insurance money – and went into debt – to build a new vessel.”
Love City has invested $4.1 million in the new M/V Grand Vic which is now undergoing sea trials. Built at the Steiner Shipyard in Alabama, where the company’s other two barges originated, the vessel will be able to hold approximately 60 cars. Its shape and distinct black-and-white color scheme are designed to resemble the Capt Vic. Photos showing the entire craft will be available when the barge makes its debut on St. John.
The Grand Vic has been under construction for about nine months. “It’s like birthing a child,” said Sewer. “But like building a house, the finishing touches are the most frustrating part.”
Lew Sewer, the company’s president and COO, is now in Alabama where the Coast Guard is conducting stability tests. The Grand Vic will make the voyage to the Virgin Islands when the Coast Guard’s inspections are completed, said Anecia Sewer.
The Capt Vic, built in 1957, was the first vessel operated by Love City when the company began service in 1998. It has been refurbished several time, most recently in 2008.
All of Love City’s vessels bear the name “Vic” in honor of of the family patriarch, Capt. Victor William Sewer, the first harbor master for the V.I. Port Authority “back in the day,” and one of the founders of ferry service to St. Thomas and the British Virgin Islands, according to Anecia Sewer. Love City Car Ferries currently 16 people.
Although there is no sign posted, the area known as “The Creek” in Cruz Bay was officially named the Victor William Sewer Marine Facility in 2008.
In the summer of 2016, a series of unfortunate events left St. John with only one operating barge, the Island Vic, for several weeks. Since then, some community activists have been pushing to have the barges put under the authority of the Public Service Commission, which regulates passenger ferry service between St. John and St. Thomas.
Anecia Sewer sees little advantage to being under the PSC’s auspices unless the Virgin Islands Government uses U.S. Department of Transportation funds to provide subsidies to the barge companies. Several years ago, the Virgin Islands Government used federal funds to purchase vessels for the two companies that hold the franchises for passenger ferry service between St. Thomas and St. John.
“Railroads, airlines, ferries are subsidized because the public relies on them. It’s a tough business to be in,” said Sewer, adding that some families have had to use their property as collateral to expand their fleet. “Private companies – local families – are putting their heritage on the line,” she said. “It’s not making anyone wealthy. Our house is still mashed up from the hurricane, but we’re building a ferry.”