The Cape May–Lewes Ferry, operated by the Delaware River and Bay Authority (DRBA), consists of three ferry vessels and two terminal facilities. Its operations are based at its Cape May terminal, which is actually located in North Cape May, on the north shore of the Cape May Canal.
The three vessels in the fleet carry both vehicles (passenger cars, buses, RVs, tractor trailers, motorcycles, and bicycles) and foot passengers. Each has a capacity of about 100 cars, selling out in advance during the popular summer weekends (although passenger capacity usually does not). Advance reservations are accepted.
The ferry trip takes approximately 80 minutes and provides a view of three lighthouses: the Cape May Light in New Jersey, and the Harbor of Refuge Light and Delaware Breakwater East End Light near Lewes.
The ferry's terminal buildings were substantially overhauled in 2000–01. A new Cape May terminal replaced the existing structure, built in 1988. The Lewes terminal, also built in 1988, was expanded and renovated at the same time. Both terminals now feature unique, recognizable "towers," which contain elevators and staircases connecting the terminal buildings to glass-enclosed walkways. The walkways allow foot passengers to board the vessel directly on the second deck, avoiding vehicles driving onto the car deck below.
The terminal buildings feature gift shops, food courts, bars, restaurants, ticketing and information booths, and occasional history or art exhibits.
The original fleet of four steamships and two diesel-powered ships was purchased in 1964 from the defunct Little Creek-Cape Charles Ferry in Virginia, replaced by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. Those ships were the SS Cape May (originally the SS Delmarva), the SS Delaware (originally the SS Pocahontas), the SS New Jersey (originally the SS Princess Anne), the MV Cape Henlopen (originally the SS Virginia Beach) and later in 1964, the MV Atlantic (originally the MV Old Point Comfort) (this vessel was sold at the end of 1966). The four remaining ships were replaced beginning in 1974 with new, diesel-powered vessels. The three original vessels of the new fleet, the MV Delaware, MV New Jersey, and MV Twin Capes, were supplemented by the MV Cape Henlopen (originally named New Del) in 1981 and the MV Cape May in 1985. Although these five vessels would later differ in external appearance, they were originally designed and built to identical specifications. Renovation projects in the mid- to late-1990s radically altered the shapes and appearances of the fleet. However, the vessels were only rebuilt from the hull up, meaning that their hulls and power plant remain identical.
Each vessel consists of an open car deck situated atop a hull that is low to the water. Because of the ships' shallow displacements, the ships appear almost barge-like, sitting directly atop the water, from a distance. The ships were originally built with two decks atop the car deck—the second deck consisting of a gift shop, café, and interior and exterior seating areas, and the third deck consisting of outdoor seating areas. Historically, an interior crew room was situated on the third deck, and a pilot house was on the fourth deck. Subsequent renovations changed these plans on some of the vessels.
Each vessel can hold 100 cars and 800 passengers. All have a length of 320 feet (98 m) and a breadth of 68 feet (21 m), a displacement of at least 2100 tons, a maximum draft of 7 feet (2.1 m), two 4,000 horsepower (3,000 kW) diesel engines, and a top speed of 16 knots (30 km/h) (18 mph).
The MV Delaware was the first of the original three vessels of the new 1970s fleet. Christened in June 1974 she is the flagship of the fleet. The Delaware has undergone several renovations and refurbishments. The first in 1994 added an additional passenger lounge on the third deck which included a deli and an outdoor bar with refurbishments to her main passenger lounge on the second deck. New "shark fin" smokestacks were added in 1997 replacing her original stacks. A renovation in 2001 resulted in her second and third decks being extended forward and aft and the outdoor bar moved behind the stacks along with renovations to both interior spaces. A third renovation in 2013 reconfigured the interior space on the second deck.
The MV New Jersey is the second of the original three vessels of the new 1970s fleet, christened in November 1974. A outdoor canopy was added to the third deck in 1996 and in 1999 she received upgraded finishes and seating to the interior passenger lounge. Her main passenger lounge was recently renovated in 2013 with new carpeting and seating.
The MV Cape Henlopen, the fourth vessel of the fleet built in 1981 was christened New Del in July 1981. The vessel was renamed Cape Henlopen in 1984. She received new outdoor seating and a canopy along with new indoor seating in 1998. A recent refurbishment in 2012 resulted in new interior lighting, flooring, seating and climate control.
The MV Cape May, which was the newest vessel of the fleet christened in May 1985, was refurbished in 1998 in a $20 million project that retained the original superstructure and added deck extensions and a new fourth deck. The renovation added a fourth-deck buffet restaurant, bars, an enlarged gift shop, an elevator, and additional interior seating. In 2007, in order to help close an operating deficit, the DRBA removed the Cape May from service and announced that the vessel was up for sale. The vessel's added expense of operation and low use—it had made only fifteen crossings in 2007—were additional factors leading to its removal from service. The owners of Cross Sound Ferry in Connecticut had shown interest in purchasing the ferry. In 2013, the Cape May was sold to Northstar Marine Services for $750,000, to be converted to a support vessel for offshore wind farms.
The MV Twin Capes is one of the original three vessels of the 1970s fleet, christened in May 1975. She was extensively renovated in a $27 million project between 1994 and 1996 resulting in the original superstructure on and above the second deck removed, the second deck extended forward and aft, and a new superstructure with four new decks, multiple lounges, new pilot house and "shark fin" smokestacks added. The vessel was then marked as a miniature cruise ship, complete with two sets of elevators, a sweeping interior staircase, interior areas on four different decks, an enlarged retail shop, a food court with a brick pizza oven, four different bars, and a buffet restaurant in a two-deck-tall, glass-enclosed atrium. Although the restaurant was shut down in 2000 after U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspectors found numerous violations in the galleys of all five vessels, the ship remained an attraction. Her sister ship is the MV Delaware. In July 2010, due to decreasing ridership, the DRBA announced that the vessel was for sale. As of October 2015, the Twin Capes remains unsold, and is currently docked at the Cape May terminal in a storage slip. The "Twin Capes" was taken out of service and retired in October 2013.
Service began on July 1, 1964, utilizing a fleet of five ships purchased from Virginia as mentioned above. Those ships had previously provided service across the Chesapeake Bay, connecting Cape Charles with Virginia Beach, but the opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in 1964 rendered that service obsolete. All of the steamers were replaced in the 1970s with the service's current fleet.
When it began service, the Cape May–Lewes Ferry operated under a 24-hour schedule. That schedule was cut back in 1975 to 16 hours per day.
The ferry was constructed with transportation as its chief goal. However, over time, the Delaware River and Bay Authority (DRBA) began to recognize its potential as a tourist attraction. While the ferry of today continues to provide a vital transportation link between Delaware and New Jersey, the ferry experience has been optimized to draw in tourists.
The ferry fleet was substantially overhauled during the 1990s, adding several amenities—including buffet restaurants, bars, and lounges—intended to promote the ride as a draw in itself. The DRBA operates a shuttle service on both sides of the bay in the summer months, giving foot passengers both a ride on the ferry and round-trip transportation from the terminals into Cape May and Lewes for one combined rate. In Delaware, the shuttle connects the ferry to downtown Lewes, Tanger Outlets, and the park and ride lot in Rehoboth Beach, where connections can be made to DART First State's Resort Transit bus routes that serve the Delaware Beaches and connect to the Beach Buses in Ocean City, Maryland. In New Jersey, the shuttle connects the ferry to the Cape May Transportation Center in downtown Cape May. The DRBA also operates a shuttle bus that links the ferry to the Cape May County Park & Zoo in July and August. On Wednesdays from June to September, Lucky Sevens Tours operates a coach bus that connects the ferry in Cape May to Atlantic City; the package includes round-trip ferry service, round-trip coach service, and free play for slots. The DRBA has partnered with local merchants to give discounts to passengers, allowing passengers to purchase a round-trip ticket and not disembark midway.
In addition to these promotions, the ferry also offers special holiday excursions. A popular, but expensive, excursion includes the annual fireworks cruise, in which passengers board the vessel (usually the MV Twin Capes) and sail into the bay to watch a Fourth of July fireworks show sponsored by the DRBA. The cruise features entertainment on the car deck (past entertainment has included a symphony orchestra) and a catered meal.
The ferry is a connection between the south Jersey Shore towns from Long Beach Island to Cape May, and the Delaware Beaches and Ocean City, Maryland on the Delmarva Peninsula. Prior to its inception, travelers between these areas needed to drive across southern New Jersey to the Delaware Memorial Bridge, and then down through Delaware on U.S. Route 13, or vice versa if they were coming from Delaware.
On the evening of December 10, 2009, the New Jersey ran aground on a sandbar near the mouth of the Cape May Canal, during an unusually low tide. The ferry was freed by a rising tide and did not suffer any structural damage.