Messenger - Vol. 2, No. 1, Page 9
Fall 1992
Gretchen Bittner '93; Captain of the 'Talbot'

      Like lots of kids, Gretchen Bittner, Delaware '93, and her brother,
Robb, had a lemonade stand when they were growing up. It was a pretty
typical kids' venture except for one thing-the Bittners' stand was on the
family ferryboat.
      Now a senior at the University, Bittner pilots the ferryboat in the
summer on its daily trips across the scenic Tred Avon River between the
picturesque towns of Oxford and Bellevue, Md. Having passed rigorous Coast
Guard tests two years ago when she was 19, she is a licensed Master Inland
Captain for vessels up to 110 tons.
      Carrying up to nine cars at a time plus pedestrians and bicyclists,
while navigating around recreational sailors is no small task. Bittner
makes it look easy.
      Under her able hand, the ferry Talbot glides out of its slip on the
Oxford side of the river, and in a mere seven minutes, with barely a bump,
it is tied up on the Bellevue side. The foot passengers and vehicles
disembark and then it's time to head back one nautical mile the other way.
      The ferry has two engines-one to push it across the river, the other
to pull it back the other way.
      "It doesn't look hard, does it?" Bittner asks. "My friends from
school come down and laugh at me. They say, 'Wow. What a challenge.' I
think they really come for the seafood."
      It may look so easy because Bittner was practically reared on the
ferry. She is the seventh generation of her family to captain a ferry and
one of four members of her immediate family who captain the Talbot. Her
father, David, and her mother, Valerie, are licensed captains. Her brother,
a business major at the University of South Carolina, followed family
tradition and got his license this year, too.
      "I've been on the ferry ever since I could walk," Bittner says, "but
to get my captain's license, I had to accumulate time-the equivalent of a
      Bittner says taking the test for her license was a little like taking
the SAT's all over again. She took a special course in Annapolis to study
for it.
      The four-part exam includes lengthy questions that require detailed
written answers and a part that is completed by using a navigational chart.
CPR and first aid also are included in the test.
      "The questions about tidal changes were the worst," Bittner says.
      At the University, Bittner is majoring in English and minoring in
Spanish. She plans to earn her bachelor's degree this winter and stay one
more year to earn a master's in English or Spanish and a teaching
certificate. A teaching career-with summers off-seems well-suited to
someone whose first love is a ferryboat.
      "After all this time, I don't know if I could fit into a regular
office job. I'd love to teach, maybe English as a second language, and have
the summers off and stay involved with the ferry," she said.
      "I really love this area. I've visited friends in New Jersey, and
it's just a different world. It's all rush, rush, rush. It's so peaceful
and beautiful here. I grew up being able to ride my bike or use my roller
skates in the middle of the street. A sailboat is practically mandatory for
every kid, and everyone learns to catch seafood. My high school class (St.
Michaels, a public school) only had 60 people."
      Bittner's father opens the ferry every morning and works the 7-9 a.m.
shift. Bittner says she prefers the 9 a.m.-l p.m. shift, leaving her
afternoons free for tennis and water sports.
      Tourists account for 90 percent of the ferry business, and
increasingly, those people are arriving for the ride on bicycles. The flat,
eight-mile bike route from Oxford to St. Michaels attracts more biking
enthusiasts each year.
      In June, two of the bikers who boarded the ferry were John F. Kennedy
Jr. and his girlfriend, reportedly looking at local real estate.
      Other celebrities to board the ferry include Oliver North, Tom
Selleck and Frank Perdue. Former Presidential Press Secretary James Brady
and his wife are frequent passengers, and Bittner and a deck hand are still
debating whether or not a one-time passenger was actress Elizabeth
      The Oxford-Bellevue Ferry is thought to be the oldest privately
operated ferry service in the country. It is first mentioned in the minutes
of the Talbot County Commissioners on Nov. 20, 1683. The first ferryboat
operator was a Richard Royston who was paid 2,500 pounds of tobacco, the
equivalent of $25 a year for two years.
      Bittner's family, who ran ferries between Shelter Island and North
Haven on Long Island for five generations, became involved in the Maryland
ferry in 1974. That's when Bittner's grandfather, Capt. Gilbert C. Clark,
bought the ferry line from on old friend. Clark moved to Maryland and
brought a six-car ferry, The Southside, with him.
      In 1975, Bittner's parents joined Clark in the operation, and five
years later, the three put The Talbot into service. Clark retired in l987,
and The Southside was donated in 1991 to the Maryland Department of Natural
Resources, which sunk it in the Chesapeake Bay as a fishery.
      "I guess you could say that boat led a full life," Bittner says.
      The ferry is accessible from Maryland 333 in Oxford or Maryland 329
in Bellevue. Continuous crossings are made every 20 minutes from June 1
through Labor Day. The ferry is closed for maintenance from mid-December
through February and is open other times from 7 a.m. to sunset on weekdays
and 9 a.m. to sunset on weekends.
                                   -Beth Thomas