By Connie Leinbach
Ocracoke Island residents and visitors traveling to Swan Quarter had to do a quick change on Tuesday when the fall schedule had a different set of departures than islanders are used to.
Typically, the N.C. Ferry Division reduces runs between Ocracoke, Hatteras, Swan Quarter and Cedar Island in the fall and through the winter when ridership declines.
Typically, a mid-day or evening run to Swan Quarter is dropped, but this time, the 7 a.m. departure from Ocracoke has been dropped.
The schedule to Swan Quarter from now to May 24 changed the departures from Ocracoke to 10 a.m., 1:30 and 6:30 p.m. For the new winter ferry schedule, click here.
A number of islanders who rely on the 7 a.m. departure to do errands and see doctors in (little) Washington, have to scramble.
One of those was islander Monroe Gaskill, who learned about the change on Monday, the day before the schedule change.
Gaskill gets on the 7 a.m. ferry, goes to Belhaven to load up on product for his sand and gravel spreading business, and then gets on the 2 p.m. ferry, he said. When he gets back to Ocracoke, he still has daylight during which he can spread sand or gravel for customers.
With this new schedule, he will return in the dark and not be able to spread his product right away.
Celeste Brooks, Ocracoke postmaster, noted that all of her doctors are in Washington.
“I can get the 7 a.m. ferry, get to a doctor’s appointment, run to a store and get back in time to catch the 4:30 ferry,” she said.
Now, she’ll have to go over the day before, which will take more time, and although she has somewhere to stay, many on Ocracoke would have to spring for a motel room.
Another alternative would be to take an early ferry to Hatteras (4:30 a.m., 6:30, 7:30) and drive 64 miles to Manteo and head to their destinations from there.
Timothy Hass, Ferry Division spokesman, said in an email that the biggest reason for the schedule change is due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Since Dorian made landfall two years ago, the crews for the early run to Swan Quarter have been housed together in very small campers,” Hass said. “Given the current spread of COVID in the area, we can no longer house so many people in such tight quarters safely.
“Those crews are now staying in Swan Quarter. Once the new dormitory on Ocracoke is complete, the Ferry Division plans to reinstate the early morning run between Ocracoke and Swan Quarter.”
Work on the Ocracoke dormitory and the ferry office, both of which had been flooded by Hurricane Dorian Sept. 6, 2019, only began in the last few months but the dormitory is expected to be completed in January or February, Hass said.
Hass also said that the 7 a.m. run to Swan Quarter “has been one of the least traveled of all the departures on Pamlico Sound with an average of less than 20 vehicles (40 percent capacity).”
In the winter, it has an average of less than 10 vehicles, or 20 percent capacity.
“The schedule change is a matter of the health and safety of our crews and the traveling public and is unavoidable until the housing situation on Ocracoke is rectified,” he said.
Several islanders were concerned about what islanders would do when faced with jury duty in Swan Quarter.
“The Ferry Division is working with the Clerk of Superior Court to make special arrangements on the dates when jurors from Ocracoke are needed for duty,” Hass said in the email, though he didn’t explain how that would work. “We estimate there may be six such occasions over the course of the winter, and we will make sure jurors are able to get to their assignments on those days.”
Randal Mathews, Ocracoke’s Hyde County commissioner, said the Ferry Division ran the schedule change by him and Hyde County Manager Kris Noble.
“I guess they’re doing what they need to do,” he said.
He said the Ferry Division is working with about half the staff they normally have due to COVID-19 and the difficulty getting funding from the state legislature.
“Two of the older captains don’t want to stay in the campers,” he said, referring to the several trailers installed on Ocracoke after Dorian to house ferry workers.
Ferry crews typically work one week on and one week off, but some have had to work three weeks on and one week off due to staffing issues, he said.
As for the delay in reconstructing the ferry buildings, Mathews noted how all of the local contractors have been slammed since Dorian.
Complicating things for government projects is the requirement for high-priced projects to receive three bids and sometimes, owing to the island’s remoteness, three bids might not be received, necessitating another round of bid requests.