CAPE MAY — Every time Dan O’Neill takes his 25-foot boat on the water is like a visit with friends.
On a recent transit of Cape May Harbor, O’Neill waved to everyone and greeted most by name as the contractors and crew members worked on boats docked in the marina slips.
“Hey, you’re plugging up my flounder hole! Save some for me,” he shouted as he motored past his neighbor, who was fishing near a channel marker.
The 42-year-old commercial fisherman has lived on the Cape May Harbor for 25 years and has gotten to know not only all the captains of Cape May’s commercial and recreational fleet, but also their crews and customers.
Now he and his business partner, Doug Ortlip, of Lower Township, are parlaying that network of connections into a new business, southern New Jersey’s only water taxi service in Cape May Harbor.
A Tiny Cruise Line offers hour-long tours of Cape May Harbor for $20 per person, private party cruises and $5 shuttle service from point to point among the dozens of restaurants, marinas and private boat slips in Lower Township and Cape May.
O’Neill hopes to fill what seems to him an obvious gap in service in Atlantic and Cape May counties, he said.
John Cooke, president of the Greater Cape May Chamber of Commerce, said he sees a role for a water taxi similar to services provided in the Inner Harbor of Baltimore.
“I certainly think there’s a market for a water-taxi service in the Cape May Harbor between traffic from the Lobster House to the Harbor View Restaurant to the Nature Center of Cape May,” he said. “There is such an influx of transient boaters, that getting them another opportunity to get around the harbor can only help.”
O’Neill has a captain’s license to pilot vessels up to 100 gross tons. He is eager to step up his game to 200-ton vessels, which would allow him to pilot cruise ships. For now, he is content to captain his tiny cruise line.
For most of his career, he worked as a boom operator to protect shorelines from oil spills. He responded to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He has been thinking about the taxi service since 1998. But in 2004, five people were killed when an overloaded water taxi flipped in Baltimore Harbor. That created a lot of regulatory uncertainty about how new Coast Guard rules would affect the industry, O’Neill said.
On the heels of that disaster, rising gas prices made an investment in a boat charter seem riskier and less financially viable, he said.
But O’Neill said he and Ortlip decided to act last year after Ortlip’s father, Bill Ortlip, died, leaving behind the passenger boat Fancy he operated in Florida.
“We said, ‘Let’s make a run of it and do it really well,’” O’Neill said.
Now he and Ortlip take turns captaining the 12-passenger boat around the harbor each day. They keep Bill Ortlip’s logbook aboard Fancy for good luck.
They have two crew members, Holly Cappelli, of Cape May, and Lexi Quinn, of Lower Township.
“A lot of people want to get out on the water, but they don’t have four hours to spend on a whale-watch cruise,” O’Neill said.
Passengers sit in a circle facing each other on padded bench seats. The long, narrow boat has an extra-large keel to provide more stability, even when inconsiderate boaters create large wakes.
“The boat reminds me of Humphrey Bogart’s in ‘The African Queen,’” O’Neill said.
It has canopy windows that can be closed in rainy weather or glass ones that can be installed in colder weather. But on a recent trip, the weather was inviting for a boat ride.
There are lots of reasons people in Cape May would want to take a boat taxi, he said.
“They don’t want to lose their parking spot at the marina. The restaurant boat slips can fill up fast. And they don’t have to worry about getting a DUI,” he said of the citation for drunken driving.
And the service caters to private parties, including a recent wedding reception in which the bridal party arrived by water taxi at the Corinthian Yacht Club of Cape May.
Quinn and Cappelli decorated the boat with lots of lace and a “Just Married” sign.
The taxi service has arrangements with marinas to keep pier space open to drop off and pick up passengers. And every time the taxi passes a restaurant, O’Neill lets loose the boat’s loud compressed-air horn and rings its bell to get the attention of potential customers.
This invariably leads patrons at the waterfront restaurants to offer a friendly wave.
Cape May is the second-largest commercial fishing port on the East Coast. A tour of Cape May Harbor shows why. Rows upon rows of scallopers, squid boats, long-liners and clam boats share space with recreational tuna and marlin charters.
O’Neill has worked countless jobs as a fisherman over his lifetime and laces his tours with plenty of insider information about commercial fishing.
“We’re so new, we can tailor our trips to what people want,” O’Neill said.
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