A Ferryman's View - Cornwall Life meets passenger ferry skipper John Wood
PUBLISHED: 11:46 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:58 20 February 2013
In this May issue, Cornwall Life meets passenger ferry skipper John Wood who works between Fowey and Mevagissey
Cornwall Life talks to ferry skipper John Wood about how he became a ferryman, and finds out what he does in the quieter moments off season
John Wood has been the owner and skipper of the passenger ferry between Fowey and Mevagissey for the past eight years. "I was very focused as a boy in a dreamy kind of way. I was determined from quite an early age to become a helicopter pilot." John's dream came true and his subsequent flying career took him from the North Sea and Scottish Highlands to race circuits and air shows. It was followed by a 15-year spell on a small arable farm, which he combined with helicopter traffic spotting for a local radio station. He then worked in public relations. "Ferries seemed the obvious next step," he grins.
Born to a Cornish father and Scottish mother, John moved to Cornwall in 1998. His family supported the move and he immediately felt at home. "My daughter really feels she's Cornish. She worked on the boat with me all through college and never misses an opportunity to get home."
"We bought an old farm cottage near Mevagissey where I could continue my public relations work," said John. "There wasn't a ferry service then between Mevagissey and Fowey; that started a couple of years later. The ex-skipper and two crewmen from a Scottish 'ro-ro' ferry leased a boat from Dunvegan Castle (on Skye), had it shipped down on a lorry, and set up shop. The service only lasted for four months due to a combination of bad luck and bad weather, I think. My wife saw the business advertised in the local paper and read it to me, and I don't think she's forgiven herself!"
John then faced something of a challenge. After serving notice, he had two months to get himself qualified to Boatmaster's Licence standard, to find and train suitable crew, and to get to grips with becoming self-employed and running a passenger ferry.
"My flying experience helped a lot. I had run a similar-sized operation and was used to dealing with the regulators," said John. "My sailing qualifications came in very handy and I was given quite a bit of help and advice by 'wee Steve' who'd skippered the ferry in its first season."
Looking back eight years on, John can't quite believe his luck. He obviously still has tremendous enthusiasm for his latest career. "I can't think of a better job in the world," he says. "People often ask whether I get bored ploughing the same little bit of sea from Fowey to Mevagissey day after day. I suppose I'd have to admit yes, but only very occasionally." He continues: "When we had a new boat built a couple of years ago, I was determined to retain the helm inside the forward passenger cabin. That way I get to chat to passengers during the quieter moments - and reassure them during the more exciting ones. A lot of children make a bee-line for the wheelhouse; they are especially fascinated by the fish-finder. It keeps my life interesting - that and the weather. Fine weather can sometimes be dull but it is very changeable!"
Does John see much wildlife on the river? "If you mean dolphins, well maybe a couple of dozen times a year. There is always a fair variety of birds on the river, and there are usually a couple of weeks in May or June when we see a good number of basking sharks. And the sun fish are exciting. Part of it's vicarious, I suppose. For most passengers it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience and you can't help sharing their excitement. We've built a crow's nest on the wheelhouse roof on the new boat so we can keep a lookout for anything that's about."
Running a seasonal operation, John has time in the winter to look after most of the other aspects of running his business. He taught himself some basic website design skills and he designs the company leaflet. The ferry gets a thorough overhaul every year. "When you're operating one boat seven days a week for five months, you can't afford to break down during the holiday season," he explains. "I do the routine oil changes and the annual overhaul but the engine is computerised so I leave any difficult bits to our engineer and his laptop." John was intimately involved with the design and construction of his current ferry at a boatyard in Wadebridge and spent three months working on the build after it fell behind schedule.
"I often get asked what I do in the winter. I do up old barns and write poetry. It's actually one of the great attractions of this job. By the end of September we're ferried out and happy to step on to dry land. But by March or April I am itching to be back on the water again, so it works very well."
And the best part of the job? "The people I meet and the view from the office window. I'm probably prejudiced, but I really can't think of two more beautiful places on earth. I have lost count of the number of times I have made the journey," says John, "but the view of Fowey from the harbour entrance when the late afternoon sun catches the church tower and white gables never fails to lift my spirits.
"I sometimes imagine that I am returning home from the New World or the wars. It is an image that you would carry with you on long voyages and dream of often."