The word "ferry" might conjure a giant vessel filled with rows on rows of sleepy commuters. Basically, a floating subway car.
It's also possible, that "ferry" brings to mind an image of fun. You're holding a cocktail purchased on board. Smiling people are wearing shorts.
The Cross-Bay Ferry, which began service between downtown Tampa and downtown St. Petersburg in November, is a little of both. You can commute to work on the Cross-Bay Ferry, but the vibe catching on is the latter one. The ferry is fun. It's filled with rows of high-backed, cushioned seats, big tables, and outdoor space. And how's this for a Tampa Bay touch: the bar serves locally brewed craft beer.
Ridership data released in January shows that more than 13,000 passengers traveled in November and December combined. Organizers said about half of all the ferry's riders have cruised on weekends, mostly a mix of tourists and residents out for recreation.
"I think this area has kind of a traditional notion of what transit is," said Cross-Bay Ferry project advisor Ed Turanchik. "People tend to think it's about commuters, but in most places with more mature transportation systems, transit is for all markets. The commuter market will always be difficult here, because it's a limited market and we only have one boat."
The Cross-Bay Ferry is a $1.4 million, six-month pilot program, the cost split among Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and the cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa. Running through April 30, it tests demand for both recreational riders and commuters. Talks are also ongoing for a ferry to connect MacDill Air Force Base and south Hillsborough County.
Cross-Bay organizers have adjusted the cost to see how it affects ridership, dropping one-way tickets from $10 to $5 on weekdays for all of February. Passengers can ride for free the third Sunday of every month with a wristband. Starting at 10 a.m. on those Sundays, you can get a wristband first-come, first-served, for all of that day's departures by visiting the ticket booth at either terminal. You can also buy a commuter pass for $100, or 20 rides.
We wanted to test the ferry, so we cruised on a Thursday, a Saturday and a Sunday, both to run errands and just for fun. Here's what happened.
TRIP NO. 1: Sunday, Dec. 18 (free Sunday), 5:30 p.m. departure to Tampa
GETTING THERE: Living in downtown St. Petersburg, the Beach Drive ferry terminal was a 20-minute walk. My date took a $5 Uber ride from his place. When we arrived, we already had our wristbands, but plenty of people walked up to the line as it was forming and were turned away.
GOAL: To check out Tampa's Winter Village for ice skating at Curtis Hixon Park and grab some pizza. That day also ended up being the Riverwalk Boat Parade, which we arrived for just in time.
WHO I MET: The best part of the ferry is the people-watching. We happened to go on a day when the boat was full of obviously drunken people all wearing Christmas sweaters. We watched as the intoxicated parties took turns spreading their arms, each claiming to be the king of the world.
TIME IT TOOK: The ferry ride took about 50 minutes. We strolled pretty leisurely through the Tampa Convention Center and along the Riverwalk to Curtis Hixon Park.
GETTING BACK: We skipped the ferry ride so we could spend more time in Tampa. Returning on the ferry would have left us with only 20 more minutes. We took an Uber back to St. Petersburg for $22.37.
THE EXPERIENCE: My Cross-Bay Ferry experience is also a first date story. Spoiler: it went well. We toyed with the idea of hopping on the 11 a.m. ride, making a full day of it in Tampa and hitching a ride back on the final ferry, which leaves at 7 p.m. An eight-hour date is a serious commitment, especially for a first date, so we opted for leaving at 5:30 to enjoy the sunset.
We both had a great time, and I've recommended it as a date night option to several friends. We shared a $12 mini bottle of cabernet on the bow, fighting the wind to try to keep the swirling wine from spilling (it did). As the ferry picked up speed, the breeze filled my date's oversized white T-shirt, creating what I like to call a "sexy marshmallow" effect. Once the boat approached Tampa and slowed down, we could finally ease our grip on the railing and enjoy the Christmas lights. We wanted to avoid having to take another Uber while we were in Tampa, so we kept all our plans with walking in mind.
COST: Ferry: free; wine: $12; Uber back to St. Petersburg: $22.37; total cost: $34.37.
— Alexa Volland
TRIP NO. 2: Thursday, Feb. 9, 7 a.m. ferry to Tampa
GETTING THERE: A 10-minute walk from the Old Northeast to the St. Petersburg terminal. Bought walk-up tickets at the booth.
GOAL: Buy glasses at Warby Parker at Oxford Exchange, return some shoes to DSW, lunch with a friend downtown.
WHO I MET: There were exactly two other passengers on the ferry when it departed at 7 a.m. Frank Cawley, 53, who lives in downtown St. Pete and works at the Bank of America building in downtown Tampa, was riding for the second day in a row after a crash put his car in the shop. He was typing away on a laptop. There's no Wi-Fi on the ferry, but if you have a phone that works as a hot spot, cellular service works throughout the trip.
"I realized it was a smooth ride and I could get some work done, so I decided to try it again," Cawley said. "Everyone at the office was fascinated. Nobody has a clue there's a ferry."
Amber DiPietra, 28, a life coach and certified sexological body worker, is disabled and does not drive. She was on her way to visit a friend in Tampa, but said she also uses it to get to work sometimes.
"I use it all the time," she said. "For me, it's really important."
TIME IT TOOK: About 40 minutes to reach Tampa. From there it was a 10-minute walk to Oxford Exchange. It should have been a 10-minute walk to the bus stop and a 20-minute ride to Dale Mabry to get to DSW, but I got on the wrong bus (and was scolded by the driver for not having another $2 to transfer before he gave me an emergency pass for free) and it ended up taking about 90 minutes. I took a 15-minute Uber back to the Tampa terminal.
GETTING BACK: Rode the 5:15 p.m. ferry returning to St. Petersburg.
WHO I MET: There were about 20 people, and the crowd was mostly middle-aged. At least three parties were people who live in Tampa taking the ferry to go to the Michael Franti concert at Jannus Live. Mark Baransky, 48, who lives on Bayshore Boulevard and works in finance, said he uses it frequently for going to shows.
Most everyone else was visiting or entertaining guests, including a couple from Oxford, England, and a guy from Philadelphia stuck in Tampa due to a blizzard. Many had ridden to Tampa on the 3:30 p.m. ferry, and were immediately returning to St. Pete after less than an hour in Tampa, saying they just wanted a boat ride with a nice view. Several people bought Green Bench beers from the bar in the ship's cabin.
THE EXPERIENCE: It's a beautiful ride when the weather is nice. If you've never seen Davis Islands from the water, you get a great view, and a great perspective on the skylines of both cities. The bar sells coffee and bagels in the morning cheaper than Starbucks, and the ability to have a beer or a glass of wine in transit seems like a big plus (I had bottled water and a bag of chips). There are plenty of restrooms and a decent amount of power outlets. Both rides were during rush hour, and I couldn't help but smirk thinking about people sitting in traffic. The downside was that due to the infrequent schedule, I had to spend almost nine hours in Tampa before returning.
COST: Ferry tickets: $5 each way; HART bus ride: $2; water: $2; chips: $2; Uber: $7; total: $23.
— Christopher Spata
TRIP NO. 3: Saturday, Feb. 11, 5:30 p.m. departure to Tampa
GETTING THERE: I ordered two tickets using the Cross-Bay Ferry app. While the evening ride to Tampa on the free Sunday I'd previously cruised on was packed, there were more than 100 seats available late on this Saturday afternoon.
GOAL: Dinner at Anise Global Gastrobar in downtown, concert at the Attic in Ybor City and a glimpse of the Sant' Yago Knight Parade with my boyfriend (told you the first date went well).
WHO I MET: Last time, we spent the entire ride on the bow of the boat. This time there was plenty of seating, both on the upper deck and inside the cabin. We'd seen lots of children on the free Sunday, but this ride was mostly couples.
Ross Metusalem, 32, and Liz Schotter, 31, a married couple who recently moved to Tampa from California, were riding the ferry for the first time with their friend Julian Parris, who was visiting from Chapel Hill, N.C. Because the first Saturday ferry doesn't leave Tampa until 4 p.m., they'd decided to take Lyft to St. Petersburg for lunch at Bodega and brewery hopping before taking the ferry back to Tampa.
"We would have preferred taking the ferry if the timing had worked better," said Metusalem, who lives in downtown Tampa. "St. Pete has a lot of great brunch spots. We'd love leaving in the morning, have brunch and take the ferry back, but it doesn't start running till the afternoon."
"The ferry is great," said Schotter. "More times and we would use it frequently. Very frequently."
TIME IT TOOK: It was a short walk to Anise, and less than a 10-minute Uber to Ybor.
GETTING BACK: We took an Uber back to St. Petersburg from Ybor for around $30.
THE EXPERIENCE: The nearly empty ferry ride was very different from our first date. We were able to cozy up inside the ferry with rows of empty seats separating us from other riders.
COST: Uber to the boat: $5.95; Ferry tickets: $20; Uber to Ybor: $5.95; Uber to St. Petersburg: $30.74; total: $62.64.
— Alexa Volland