Rob Kelly’s thirst for surf needed quenching.
It was Friday, May 28, and the professional surfer from Ocean City had gone almost a week without catching a wave. He checked every break from Long Beach Island to Cape May and found nary a ripple.
So he headed south on the Garden State Parkway, veered right at Exit 0, parked at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry terminal in Lower Township, and waited for the 1 p.m. departure to Delaware.
“It was a really slow week for surfing, and I had an itch to ride some ferry waves,” Kelly said.
The result was a memorable ride in the ferry’s wake that drew a variety of reactions from spectators and Facebook users who watched on the Cool Cape May and Cape May Live pages.
Passengers who peered off the starboard side of the vessel shot videos with their cell phones and cheered, as did those who were sitting on the picnic tables at David Douglass Memorial Park. Some who watched the video recorded by Kelly’s friend Ryan Simalchik for their Numbskulls YouTube Channel were also impressed while others wondered about the dangers of surfing so close to the boat.
“I saw the comments and I understand where (the negative statements) are coming from,” Kelly said. “I personally don’t feel like its dangerous at all — the zoom lens makes it look like I’m closer (to the boat) than I really am — but unless you have a background in surfing and are very experienced at riding different types of waves, I don’t recommend trying it.”
The ferry has been used for different types of activities in recent years.
On Aug. 29, I’ll be among hundreds of triathletes making a 12-foot leap off the front of the boat in the Delaware Bay for the start of the eighth edition of the Escape the Cape Triathlon.
But Kelly and Margate surfer Ben Gravy are believed to be among the few people who have ever surfed there.
Gravy, who gained national acclaim two years ago by catching waves in all 50 states, was reportedly the first to attempt it when he brought his board to the canal on May 1, 2017.
“I had heard about the wave when I was a kid,” said Gravy, who grew up in Longport. “But I was told that if you ever tried it you would be arrested by the State Police. In April of that year, I went down to the canal, watched the ferry go by and to my surprise, I saw the perfect left (break) and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I have to try this.’”
In recent years, Gravy has also brought along some of the world’s top surfers to experience what might be the country’s most unique wave.
The list has included former Pipeline Masters champion Jamie O’Brien and Kalani Robb.
“We were doing some promotional stuff and we rode the ferry over from Delaware to Cape May,” said Gravy, who last rode a ferry wave on April 29. “As soon as we got off the boat, I said, ‘Come over with me to the parking lot. You guys have to see this.’
“I’m known for catching novelty waves, but of all the places I’ve surfed, this one tops the list. The ferry wave is what made my career. The Cape May Ferry put me on the map.”
Kelly’s first ferry ride was with Gravy in 2019. In subsequent years, he’s been to the ferry approximately a dozen times, but hasn’t always been rewarded with a wave.
There have been times when he’s sat in the canal, watched the boat by, and paddled back to the parking lot.
“I haven’t quite figured out the science behind it,” he said. “I’ve driven down there before and there wasn’t even a ripple next to the boat. It might have to do with the tide, the weight of the boat, how fast the captain is going. This time, I thought since it was Memorial Day weekend, there would be a lot of cars on the boat and that might be in my favor.
“Just getting to the wave is a challenge. When the horn blows (signaling the ferry is pulling away from the dock), you’ve only got about five minutes before the ferry passes the jetty.”
Like Kelly, Gravy also stressed that it’s definitely not an experience for novice surfers who are looking for some excitement. For that reason, both the New Jersey State Police and U.S. Coast Guard prohibit personal watercraft from using the Cape May Canal, though Kelly and Gravy have never run into any problems.
Kelly rode his wave for more than two minutes, executing turns through the foam, bouncing his board to sustain momentum, before finally pulling away just before the boat approached the end of the jetty for its journey across the bay.
Before he paddled away, he gave a wave to the boat.
“After every wave, I give a salute to the captain and the passengers,” he said. “It’s kind of a tradition.”
Neither Kelly nor Gravy know when they will try it again.
It depends when they get thirsty.
David Weinberg’s columns can also be found on his Dave Weinberg Extra Points Facebook page and blog, as well as on 973ESPN.com. His podcast, Dave Weinberg’s Tequila and Touchdowns, can be heard on Anchor, Facebook and Twitter. You can also hear him 5:10 p.m. every Tuesday at Newstalk 1400-AM WOND and WONDRadio.com on Off the Press with Scott Cronick. His Weinberg Wednesday segment airs at 6:15 p.m. weekly on 97.3-FM ESPN.