Post by Hadiya Sewer
My internet connection is incredibly poor and my computer recently crashed. Therefore, I often travel to my parents’ office at Love City Car Ferries to work on my dissertation in the morning. I am in the office by 6 am. Though I try to focus on my academic work, I often find myself answering phone calls, running payroll, and performing other administrative tasks for the company.
My parents started this business with a great deal of grit. My father saved money that he earned as a sanitation engineer and my mother worked at the company while she was still in graduate school. Like many local Virgin Islanders, they had to use a plot of their forefather’s land as collateral. I spent a great deal of my childhood learning the ins and outs of the car ferry business. In junior high and high school, I woke up at 4 am to work as a cashier on the 6 am trip to St. Thomas before heading to school for 8 am. After school, I’d work as an administrative assistant in the office. I woke up early on many weekends to work with my father on the barge.
In our family, Love City Car Ferries is a labor of love. Our vessels, the Motor Vessel Captain Vic and the Motor Vessel Island Vic, are named after my great-grandfather, Victor William Sewer. Sea faring is in my blood. If you click the above link, you will see that Captain Vic played a pivotal role in the development of the marine industry on St. John. His father, Lancelot Sewer, was a sailor back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and he sewed (needle and thread) the sails of sailing ships, hence our name Sew-er. Our family lineage can easily be traced back to the East End of the island, an area well known for a tight knit community of “creole people” who made their living on the ocean for many generations. We run this company to honor our ancestors and keep our heritage alive. We do it to provide a service for our community. We do it to make a living.
Nevertheless, local car ferry owners in the St. Thomas – St. John district face a great deal of challenges. These companies and the families that run them are in a precarious position. The island is undergoing a rapid gentrification process and local businesses help to safeguard local capital. Many of our ancestors have been on island for well over 250 years if not longer. These companies allow us to survive the ever increasing land taxes, the food dessert, the predatory lending practices, the downside of a colonial administration, and the like. They give us hope in the possibility of a stabler tomorrow.
Since returning home, I have heard many customers complain about the car ferry services. Some people note that the barges are too late. Others are upset when we cannot wait for them. Customers get angry when they can’t get a non-refundable ticket refunded. Customers are frustrated when the barge is full and they get left behind on the dock. Many more are disgruntled when they believe that another customer was allowed to cut the line and board the vessel before them. Some believe that the company has lost a love and compassion centered approach. Few people call us to ask a question before voicing their frustrations to the public.
We take love, compassion, and our customers concerns very seriously. At Love City Car Ferries, we do our best to balance the needs of our customers with economic survival. We leave on time whenever feasible. We try to wait for late customers if their situation is dire and the wait time is within reason. A great deal of complaints emerge from misunderstandings. Examples: We never let customers cut the line arbitrarily. We take reservations and we have a Sea Miles Club; these customers are guaranteed a spot on the vessel or given preferential boarding, respectively. At times, the barge is late for reasons outside of the captain’s control- high traffic on the dock, refueling, light maintenance, and waiting for a customer who really needs to catch a plane or get to a funeral. Other times, we want to wait for a customer but we can’t. We get fined for being excessively late. If we wait too late, we are also increasing traffic on the other side.
Since the car ferries are a lifeline between the islands, we understand why our customers get frustrated when things don’t go as planned. However, we ask that you have a bit of compassion with us as well. We are not a large corporation. We are a small family run business and we’re just human.
If you have not noticed, many of the car ferry companies in the area are facing steep financial struggles.
While the vessels appear full, the profits are not high. 80-90% of our charge customers do not pay their invoices on time. We provide our employees with a fair wage, health care insurance, and a 401k plan. Unfortunately, When you couple all of the above with vessel insurance, vessel mortgate, maintenance costs, fuel costs, Port Authority fees, and the like, these companies are barely staying afloat.
Our compassion centered business model is crippling us financially. We allow our customers to ride the vessel even when they haven’t paid for previous services because we understand that things can be hard and we know that people need to be able to travel between the islands. We try to keep the costs as low as we can because we know that moving between St. Thomas and St. John shouldn’t be a luxury. For those who are from St. John, the ability to cross Pillsbury Sound is a necessity.
In short, it’s a bit painful to hear people speak so negatively of the various car ferry companies’ owners. I have academic theories that lead me to believe that there is this way in which many pathologize local entrepreneurs in the Caribbean. Quite frankly, it’s not fair. When I wake up in the morning and head to the office at 6 am, both of my parents are already working. With a few exceptions, they work from 5 am to 8 pm seven days a week to keep their customers happy. I don’t know how Love City Car Ferries or any of the other car ferry companies are going to survive with customers who, for whatever reason, do not pay invoices in a timely manner and others who see us as a heartless corporation rather than a small family business.
Several local businesses have gone out of business over the years. Some of us look back on the days when they were open with a sense of nostalgia. Others write a history that suggests that these companies never existed. Yet, it’s important for us to remember that some local businesses still exist and these companies need our help to survive.