Captain Isidoro “Izzy” Sorace is not worried about limited visibility aboard the Cape May-Lewes Ferry on this gray, misty day.
The ferry’s wheelhouse is 50 feet above water, so it can be hard to see small boats and kayaks, but Sorace knows the radar will pick them up. The radar aboard the MV New Jersey is set for six miles, with each ring on the screen representing one mile.
He sees two “inbound targets,” but he has their course and speed. He can hail them on the VHF radio if necessary.
Sorace, 51, of the North Cape May section of Lower Township, has been with the ferry service for 20 years and has spent his life on the water, running sport-fishing boats and working as a commercial fisherman. He’s gained the kind of experience book smarts can’t replicate. He’s also had to memorize the Delaware Bay: the shoals, the shipwrecks. He can draw the nautical chart for the area by memory.
“I had to put longitude and latitude in, the depth, buoys, obstructions, over 500 items you need to memorize,” Sorace said.
The Cape May-Lewes Ferry is full of guys such as Sorace. They’re locals and have raised families in Cape May County. Nearly all have decades of experience on the water and are retired Navy, Coast Guard or Merchant Marine.
All share a love of the water and the ferry, which is one of the largest employers in Cape May County. It offers them a chance to do what they love for good, year-round pay. And the workers — 137 full-time and 237 seasonal — are critical for an operation that runs four departures per day from North Cape May and Lewes, Del., in winter and 15 crossings during the peak summer season.
The salary range for a ferry captain is $74,248 to $104,821.
“I’ll work as long as I can, or until my legs give out,” said Quartermaster Mike Rosenberg, 60, of Wildwood, who steers the ship based on orders barked out by Sorace. Rosenberg put in 22 years with the Navy before getting hired by the ferry service in 1999.
A bonus for many of the workers is that they can be on the water but still sleep in their own beds. That’s a big draw for Pilot Joe Napoleon, 43, of the Goshen section of Middle Township. When Napoleon was wooing his wife, Sherri, a Bucks County, Pa., native, the ferry was about the only marine job that could make the marriage happen.
“That was the deal-breaker. Being home at night was a really big point for her to come down here and get married. She wanted me to be home at night to raise a family,” Napoleon said.
That was nine years and two children — Miranda, 11, and Jaycie, 6 — ago. The Saint Augustine Prep graduate says he has never regretted making the deal.
There also is upward mobility. Napoleon worked his way up from the lowest position, ordinary seaman, to captain. After working on sport-fishing boats in Avalon and doing construction in the winter, he joined the ferry service 19 years ago as an ordinary seaman. A seaman’s average pay is $42,495 a year with benefits, something his other jobs didn’t provide.
More importantly, he got the sea time needed to climb the ladder. It takes 365 days on the water to qualify for the able-bodied seaman exam, and 1,080 days to sit for a mate’s license. Each level brings more requirements and sea time. It can take more than a decade to become a captain, and even then, Napoleon noted, getting the job depends on whether there is an opening. He was fortunate. There always seemed to be an opening.
Another draw is that operating the ferry is a good job for an older captain. Even at 51, Sorace wouldn’t want to still be fishing commercially or running charter boats, which often involve long trips.
“That’s for a single, young guy,” said Sorace, who is married to Lower Cape May Regional High School graduate April (Pennington), with whom he has two children: Sal, 19, and Michel, 14.
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