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.
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.