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Getting to Work on the Water

Baltimore’s free ferry system gets commuters and others where they need to go.

A commuter sitting on the Harbor Connector ferry.
A commuter takes advantage of the Harbor Connector on a recent summer morning.
(Photographs by David Kidd)
Linda Gluck is the first, and for now the only, passenger aboard Raven, a 49-passenger ferry that operates in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Captain Sonny Novak and deck hand Corey Oliphant have just picked her up at the Locust Point dock, a short walk from her home. The forecast is calling for another day of heat and humidity, but the sun is still low in the sky at this early hour, and a steady breeze is blowing across the bow where she has taken a seat. After just a few minutes on the water, she steps onto the dock at Maritime Park, and from there catches a shuttle to work, provided by Johns Hopkins, her employer. Linda uses the ferry every day to get to her job. “It’s lovely,” she says. “I enjoy it. It’s always on time.”
A row of water taxis docked in Baltimore.
Crews arrive early to prepare the boats for 6 a.m. departure.
Linda Gluck.
Regular rider Linda Gluck: “I tell people all the time, ‘there’s a shuttle that runs for free!’”
Raven is one of three free ferries provided by the city to get commuters to their jobs, and everyone else where they need to go. Known as the Harbor Connector, the boats operate every weekday from six in the morning until eight at night, taking passengers back and forth across the Patapsco River. The two short routes depart every 15 minutes. The longer route takes twice that time. The service is an extension of the Charm City Circulator, a free bus service also provided by the city.
Captain Sonny Novak.
Captain Sonny Novak: “Our busiest time is generally 7:30 until 9:00. As the day goes on, we’ll get tourists, people who use it to go to the grocery store, to go to the gym.”
Corey Oliphant.
Navy veteran Corey Oliphant serves as deck hand on Sonny Novak’s boat. He plans to get a license and become a captain himself.
Reliability and adherence to the schedule are often cited as the main reasons to ride. “This boat works better than anything else the city has,” says commuter John Keefe. “It leaves on time. It arrives on time. You can depend on it.” If service needs to be paused because of fog or storms, “they will send me a text, so I always know what’s going on.”
People waiting on an empty dock for a boat to arrive.
By 8 o’clock, the Locust Point dock begins to fill up with customers.
Sonny Novak is on a first-name basis with many of his regular customers, exchanging good-natured banter as they get on and off his boat. But keeping to the schedule is a point of pride for the captain. “If somebody is running, if they’re trying to make the boat … I’ll wait,” he says. “If they’re walking down like it’s their private yacht and it’s time to go … you know what? I’ll be back in 15 minutes.”
People disembarking down the gangway from the ferry.
Ridership is picking up, but still nowhere near pre-pandemic levels.
The Raven ferry from behind as it motors away.
The Harbor Connector started in 2010 as a partner to the Charm City Connector free bus service.
By peak commuting time, there are dozens of passengers waiting at Locust Point. The zig-zagging dock juts out over the water between an array of storage tanks and the corporate campus of major local employer Under Armour. Kevin Plank, founder of the athletic apparel maker, also owns Harbor Boating, the company contracted to operate the Harbor Connector for the city, as well as a second set of ferries known as Baltimore Water Taxi. The two services cater to different customers. Geared more toward tourists, the Water Taxi charges for rides, follows different routes, and only operates seasonally, Thursday through Sunday. Still, there can be some confusion.
Captain Mike Kissel.
Captain Mike Kissel: “It’s not as busy as it used to be. I wish it would get busy again. I’d rather travel with a full boat of people.”
A commuter sitting on the ferry wearing earbuds looking at their phone.
Commuting on the ferry can be a pleasant experience in the summer. Winters are another matter.
The white-and-blue Raven and her twin, Oriole, are clearly marked as belonging to the Harbor Connector. But the third member of the fleet is borrowed from the commercial ferry service, its flanks emblazoned with “WATER TAXI” in three-foot letters. This leaves Captain Bob Crouthamel with a lot of dockside explaining to do.
Nick Cinelli.
After riding the ferry as a commuter, Nick Cinelli quit his job to become a deck hand. “In a previous life I was a pirate. I belong on the water.”
Captain Bob Crouthamel speaking to a customer.
Captain Bob Crouthamel tries to explain the difference between Baltimore’s Water Taxi and the Harbor Connector.
Crouthamel has been crisscrossing the Inner Harbor for 18 years. “I love to run boats,” he says. “And I like chatting with people.” Today he spends most of his time dockside explaining that his boat is part of the Harbor Connector. “This is not the Water Taxi,” he tells a family of tourists. “This commuter boat is part of the city’s transportation system.” The group seems not to understand the difference, but happy to hear that the ride is free. “It really does confuse people,” he says.
A family on board the boat.
Tourists can be more common than commuters at different times of the day.
At exactly 8 o’clock, Captain Mike Kissel pulls away from his last stop and points Raven across the river and back to her berth at Fells Point. The sun will be setting in 16 minutes. With no passengers aboard, the only sound is the muffled thrum of the diesel engine. The boat has been in near-constant motion since Sonny Novak steered away from the dock 14 hours earlier.
Captain Tommy Chesser.
Captain Tommy Chesser met his wife on the ferry when the two of them worked as deck hands several summers ago.
A Harbor Connector boat traveling across the water silhouetted with the setting sun behind it.
Having deposited their last passengers of the day, the Harbor Connector boats head back to the dock in Fells Point.

A Little Vacation

Eileen Cuttill is a regular morning rider, rain or shine, and always on board before seven. But her time on the water is not part of her daily commute. “I’m just having fun,” she says. After Sonny Novak drops her off, she takes a long walk through the historic neighborhood of Fells Point, then around the harbor, stopping at her favorite coffee shop along the way. Back home, she changes, gets in her car, and drives to work. Even though she doesn’t use it to commute, time aboard the ferry is an important part of Eileen’s daily routine. “It feels like a little vacation being on this boat,” she says. “I love it.”

David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at
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