NYC Ferry captain offers inside look at what it’s like navigating New York Harbor and beyond

NYC Ferry Capt. Chris Hulse, 27, of Eastport, New York,  gave amNewYork an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to navigate New York Harbor and beyond  on Tuesday, July 25, 2017.
NYC Ferry Capt. Chris Hulse, 27, of Eastport, New York, gave amNewYork an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to navigate New York Harbor and beyond on Tuesday, July 25, 2017. Photo Credit: Aubrey Plaza via Instagram

Growing up on the shores of Long Island, NYC Ferry Capt. Chris Hulse learned how to sail not long after he learned how to walk, so when the city announced the brand-new ferry service, he jumped at the opportunity.

“My dad taught me how to sail when I was 4 or 5,” said Hulse as he stood at the helm of the “The Great Eagle” ferryboat on a cloudy Tuesday morning. “I bought my first boat when I was 14. I saved up all of my allowance, everything for that boat.”

Hulse, 27, of Eastport, is one of several NYC Ferry captains who navigate the waters of New York Harbor from sunrise to sunset.

“The day starts well before sunrise for me. I usually get up around 3 a.m. to get here,” Hulse said with a laugh. “For my run today, I had to be in at 5:30 in the morning.”

Hulse and the other morning captains then set to work prepping the boats, cleaning, checking equipment and making sure everything is in working order before they pick up their first passengers.

“So I got here at 5:30 (a.m.), left the dock at 6:30 (a.m.) and arrived in Bay Ridge at 7 o’clock,” he added.

But surprisingly, he said, many of the people who find out he’s a ferry captain don’t even realize that he pilots a boat for a living.

“When you tell people you’re a ferryboat captain, I don’t really know what they think … and then they see you on the boat, driving the boat and they say ‘Oh! You’re the captain, like you drive the boat?’ And I’m like, well what do you think a captain means?” Hulse said.

Standing in front of a dashboard filled with radars, engine controls, radios and other technology, Hulse said a career as a ferry captain is both challenging and rewarding.

“I’ve always loved the city … I love being able to drive boats for a living,” he said.

Weekends are particularly busy for the ferry system, which has seen roughly double the amount of ridership than it anticipated before its launch in May, a NYC Ferry spokesman said.

“It’s probably been close to a month since I last had a weekend day off,” Hulse said.

Overcrowding and long lines can be challenging for ferry captains, Hulse said, because it takes longer for passengers to get on and off the boat, which can then lead to delays.

“Dealing with passengers that may not be the happiest,” is difficult for Hulse, he said. “Boats are full and people are starting to get angry, especially in the Rockaways when people have some drinks there.

NYC Ferry Capt. Chris Hulse, 27, of Eastport, New York, gave amNewYork an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to navigate New York Harbor and beyond on Tuesday, July 25, 2017.
NYC Ferry Capt. Chris Hulse, 27, of Eastport, New York, gave amNewYork an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to navigate New York Harbor and beyond on Tuesday, July 25, 2017. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

“But we’re new and we’re having a lot more people than we expected, so that’s good,” he added.

System delays and communication of real-time service changes are two of riders’ chief complaints since the ferry service launched in May. A spokesman for NYC Ferry said they encourage riders to download the app and use it for ticketing to speed up embarkment, which can help reduce delays by decreasing boarding times.

Despite these challenges, riders aboard “The Great Eagle,” with Hulse behind the controls, said they enjoy the ferry.

Apolonio Trinidad said this was his second time riding the ferry, the first being a trip to Governors Island with his daughter Alexandra.

“We went to Governors Island last time and we had a good time there. We did go during the weekend … and it was a bit busy when we we’re leaving,” Trinidad said. “We got the last ferry leaving Governors Island so the wait was a bit long, but it was still a good trip. We got on the boat so we were happy about that.”

Heather Rose Walters and Thomas Walters, both 29 and visiting from Portland, Oregon, said they felt the ferry ride from Bay Ridge to Manhattan was a great way to “get more bang for your buck” rather than taking the subway, which has the same $2.75 price tag.

“Getting a view of the whole city as we go into it from Bay Ridge … we get a whole lot more than just going underground,” Thomas Walters said.

“I’ve never seen the Statue of Liberty and our host said it goes right by it … so that’s exciting,” Heather, Walters’ wife, added.

With views of the Manhattan skyline, the Brooklyn Bridge, Roosevelt Island and the Statue of Liberty, there’s no denying the scenic draw of just riding the ferry for fun.

Hulse said the best view is on board the Rockaway line, which is his favorite route. And no wonder: “On the Rockaway route when you’re leaving really early in the morning, you’re usually getting under the Brooklyn Bridge right at sunrise, and you get the sunrise right over the Brooklyn Bridge, which is really cool.”

For the captains of NYC Ferry, every day is a little different Hulse said, with rotating work schedules released every three weeks, and boat and route assignments changing daily.

“The first thing you do when you get your schedule is look for your day off and figure out which day that might be,” Hulse said, explaining that he has mostly had a six-day workweek since starting as a captain in May. “But they’re hiring more captains and as that kind of moves its way through we’ll be on a more normal schedule, I think.”

On this particular day, Hulse was given the “The Great Eagle,” one of his favorite boats in the fleet, and assigned to the South Brooklyn route, which makes stops at Wall Street/Pier 11, DUMBO/Brooklyn Bridge Park Pier 1, Atlantic Avenue/Brooklyn Bridge Park Pier 6, Red Hook, Sunset Park and Bay Ridge.

Hulse said learning to navigate New York Harbor and the city’s coastal waters has been an exciting challenge and a nice change of pace from the deep-sea expeditions he was used to.

“The biggest challenge for me was learning the harbor. You hear the boats make the security calls all the time, ‘oh this boat’s coming in off this channel,’ and learning that whole thing,” he said.

The ferry captain, however, is not alone in his navigation. There are several radars in the bridge that help guide Hulse through various obstacles. The chart plotter, for example, has radar integrated into its system and shows the positions of boats, even buoys and Jet Skis, throughout the harbor in real time. “That’s very helpful, especially as visibility decreases and you can’t really see where the buoys are,” he said.

And all of the ferry captains are “highly trained,” Hulse added.

“[They’re] all professional with Coast Guard licenses that are difficult to get. You have to take multiple exams to get your license and show proficiency of handling the boats,” he said, adding that there’s a lot more that goes into becoming a ferry captain that many people don’t realize.

Hulse has an extensive background in his field, including years of personal experience on the water, an unlimited third mate license from Maine Maritime Academy and five years working out in the deep sea, crossing oceans on shipping containers. After he was hired by NYC Ferry, he completed a roughly three-week, hands-on training program before he was given the all-clear to take the helm.

“They’ve got a real good program,” he said. “They send the [trainees] out almost every single day for a few weeks or until the port captains are comfortable with the handling of the boat and you run through all of the required Coast Guard drills and they’re sure you’re proficient on any emergency situation that might happen.”

NYC Ferry is in the process of filling out its roster of captains. Although a spokesman couldn’t offer a specific number of those currently employed, the goal is to reach 50 captains in total.

And as the number of captains grows, so too does the ferry system itself. NYC Ferry announced on Wednesday that its Astoria route — with stops in Astoria, Roosevelt Island, Long Island City, East 34th Street and Wall Street/Pier 11 — will launch Aug. 29, completing its phase one roll out of four major lines. Phase two will see the launch of the Soundview and Lower East Side routes in 2018, for a total of six lines.