It rained part of opening weekend for Ship Island Excursions spring season, briefly interrupting ferry trips between Gulfport and the popular barrier island.
Weather — anything from high wind to a hurricane — can disrupt the Skrmetta family business that dates back to 1926. “We’re constantly watching the weather,” said Capt. Louis Skrmetta. “We don’t want to take people out if it’s going to rain or put them in harm’s way if it’s rough out there.”
The changing weather is just one of the things Skrmetta has to keep an eye on for the safety of his passengers and crew. He worries about those aboard getting sea sick or hurt and about protecting his boats.
“You’re going 11 miles out into the Gulf,” he said. “We have to be pretty skilled at what we do because you have a helluva lot of responsibility.”
Skrmetta, who has worked in the family business for more than 40 years, said he has to stay “totally focused on this 24 hours day.” During a recent overnight storm he was checking on the boat moorings at 4 a.m.
A third-generation captain, Skrmetta often pilots one of three ferries from Gulfport to the pristine island. It seems the idyllic job, being in the salt air and sunshine, but Skrmetta said, “There’s a lot more to it than people think. It’s a tremendous responsibility. When I see pilots in airports, I can relate to them.”
Since he was a child, Skrmetta has spent his summers on Ship Island and can remember sitting on his grandfather’s lap as he steered the boat through the Mississippi Sound. Now he’s in charge of making sure weather conditions are good and there’s a safe distance between his ferry boats and all the shrimp boats, pleasure craft and barges traversing the Sound.
“Imagine peak summer time, when you’re going in and out of the harbor making three round trips a day,” Skrmetta said. “That can be interesting on the weekend.”
Once at the island, docking operations can get tricky with changing tides and shifting sands.
It’s all about seamanship, maneuvering through the narrow channel at Gulfport with its boat traffic and across the busy Intracoastal Waterway. Yielding to traffic has a different meaning on the water.
“We know what we’re doing and we drive defensively,” he said.
The captain and crew constantly monitor the ferry’s engine and steering and electrical systems.
“There are so many things that you’re watching constantly from the time you untie the lines,” Skrmetta said.
Even crab traps can pose danger. “You don’t want to roll over one and lose power.”
Ship Island is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and the Skrmettas have been a contractor with the U.S. Park Service since 1971. They also operate the island’s food service and beach rentals.
“We are fortunate have the islands preserved and protected and to share with the world,” Skrmetta said. “It is an asset to this area.”
Skrmetta works every day during the season starting in mid-March. His father, Capt. Pete Skrmetta, is now 84 and still comes down to the boat dock occasionally. Brothers Ken and Steve also pilot the ferries along with William Buckley, a former deckhand who has worked for the Skrmettas for many years.
Louis’s son, Peter Joseph Skrmetta, recently got his captain’s license, extending the business into the fourth generation. It’s not unusual to find among the ferry passengers some third- or fourth-generation visitors headed out for a day at Ship Island. It’s the closest barrier island to Louisiana, and Skrmetta said about half of his passengers are from the neighboring state.
Ship Island has around 50 employees during peak season. The land-based crew sells tickets and keeps order in the parking lot where as many as 400 cars stack up in the Gulfport Harbor lots on sunny Saturdays.
“On busy weekends we might have 100 people standing on the pier before the scheduled departure,” Skrmetta said. “We’re moving people constantly. We don’t have reserved seats like airlines.”
Ship Island Excursions hauled more than 51,000 passengers in 2013, mainly between its peak season from mid May through mid August.
The Park Service limits the number of boat passengers on the island at one time to 1,200.
A little rain isn’t a “showstopper,” Skrmetta said, but if heavy rain is coming he’ll cut ticket sales for the day.
“Even if we lose money, we want people to be comfortable and get inside the boat,” he said.
Customer service is a priority he shares with his father. “Dad and I are the same way. We want to make sure people have a memorable trip. We want to create good memories.”