LEWES, DELAWARE is well known today as the southern terminal of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry which saves travelers heading north or south along the coast a boat load of time. The closest alternate crossing of the Delaware River is nearly 40 miles to the north at the Delaware Memorial Bridge. It’s also a very pleasant cruise, especially in the summer months when dolphins are often spotted swimming and feeding in the bay. So pleasant in fact, that the ferry carries many walk-on passengers who travel just for the sheer joy of a boat ride. But not many passengers pause to explore Lewes; most are on their way to the Delaware beaches, the Chesapeake Bay and points south, which is unfortunate since Lewes is a beautiful old town, full of history and leisurely activities. I’m betting though, that a lot of residents and visitors prefer it that way. Especially the Delaware River pilots, some of whom live in Lewes.
Delaware Bay Pilot Boat
These are people whose families have made their living traveling the river going back many generations. It is the pilots job, 24/7 to personally board and guide commercial vessels over 100 feet long up and down the shipping channel to the various ports along the river from Cape Henlopen all the way north to Trenton. They board outgoing ships as well from Philadelphia, Camden, Wilmington, and Delaware City and are also responsible for leading ships in and out of the eastern portion of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. Their organization, the Delaware Bay and River Pilots Association has its main base at the ferry terminal at Lewes. It’s from there that the pilots board launch boats and are shuttled out to waiting incoming ships. They’ll then climb a 30 foot perpetually wet rope ladder, sometimes in very nasty weather and almost always at night, and make their way to the bridge where they’ll take over the helm to guide the ship upstream for the next six to nine hours. The pilots usually average two ships on round trips each week, spending about 50 hours on the job.
The job requires extensive training and apprenticeship, and, the final exam is little changed from Mark Twain’s days as a river pilot: on a blank piece of paper they must draw the river from Cape May to Trenton to scale from memory, including every lighthouse, buoy, bridge, pipeline, wreck, shoreline and depth marker.
So the next time you take the ferry, leave some time to explore Lewes. Park your car; it’s a great walking town. Or just park your butt and take in a breath of some very historic air.
AT THE VERY TIP of the Cape May peninsula, looking out over “The Ripps”, where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, is Sunset Beach, where a sharp eye might spot a “Cape May Diamond”. These are translucent pebbles of pure quartz crystal, washed down the Delaware and polished naturally over many years by sand and water turbulence. They were highly prized by the Kechemeche who believed they possessed great power. They would be used as wampum and jewelry and given as gifts to their closest friends. These little gems can be purchased but it’s much more interesting and rewarding to find your own. They’re free! Sunset beach is also the landing site of the steam boats that brought vacationers to Cape Island in the early nineteenth century.
And who can leave Cape May without taking a peak at the concrete ship Atlantus, broken in pieces and lying just off shore? You’re probably thinking “Concrete ship? Lead balloon?” The ship was part of an “emergency fleet” built during the latter days of the First World War when steel was scarce. After just a couple of years of service, the Atlantus was retired to a salvage yard in Virginia. She was purchased in 1926 to be used as part of a dock for the proposed Cape May Ferry. That same year, she was towed to Cape May but ran aground when her moorings broke during a storm. Several attempts were made to free her, but because of the tremendous weight, it became an impossible task and was abandoned. And there she has lain ever since, gradually crumbling into the sea. The ferry would have to wait until 1964 to finally become a reality.
Concrete ship Atlantus in 1926
A little farther north from Sunset Beach, up Sunset Boulevard, is Cape May Point State Park where sits the Cape May Light House. Its also a prime gathering spot for watching migrating birds. It is said that over 45,000 raptors can be spotted during peak season and the variety is astonishing. Norther Harriers, Bald Eagles, American Kestrels, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Peregrine Falcons and more can be spotted in the fall. There are even volunteer “spotters” stationed on the platforms. I visited there unwittingly during one crisp Autumn day and though many bird people with telescopic lens and binoculars were ooohing and aahing, I didn’t see a damn thing. One really needs optical assistance. Trying to make amusing conversation, I asked one middle-aged woman in bird-watching gear if she had spotted any penguins. She fixed me in a raptor-like stare, as if I were potential prey.
Birders are humorless people.