They Get Up At 3 A.m. To Make Over 80 Trips Across The Elizabeth River Each Day. The Life Of A Hampton Roads Deckhand.

The dock is wet and deserted. The sky is overcast.

A handful of commuters get off a ferry at Waterside in Norfolk just before a man walks his bike over, rolls it up the gangway and boards. The boat can transport 150, but he’s the only passenger aboard the James C. Echols.

After a 5- to 10-minute trip, the ferry glides into Portsmouth.

It's just past 9 a.m., but for deckhands Destiny Carter-McIntyre and Dejah Belcher, it’s their 24th trip of the morning. They’ve been at it since 5:30 a.m., traveling to the same three docks on the Elizabeth River – two in Portsmouth and one in Norfolk.

“In the morning I enjoy watching the sunrise, but after that ..., " Belcher trails off.

Whether there's one passenger or it's standing room only, the young women do the same back and forth and back and forth dozens of time a day, less than a mile at a time.

Ever wondered what it's like to be a deckhand? Meet Destiny and Dejah. They keep it interesting. Read the full story Monday @virginianpilot

— Isabel Dobrin (@isabeldobrin) July 14, 2017

The two of them – among eight female deckhands – work extremely hard, said Deon Glover, the chief operating officer of Norfolk by Boat, the company contracted out to Hampton Roads Transit to run the ferries. “They wake up at 3 every morning to be here at 5, and on top of that they go to school,” he said. “Young women their age, you don't find that a lot.”

Getting the job

The pair stand on the port side of the ferry near the bow, their arms slung over the railing as they chat.

The 19-year-olds have been friends since they were freshmen at Churchland High School, and spend the majority of their time together on the water, rain or shine. Unless there’s heavy winds or thick fog, they’re together on the ferry nine hours a day, five days a week. The gig pays $9.25 an hour.

Carter-McIntyre, a senior deckhand, started about a year and a half ago.

“You get to meet good people and you get to be on the water all day,” she said. “It's a fun job to have, especially with the tourists.”

Belcher has been working for six months. She’d never been on a ferry when she applied for the job, but she tried it out for a week. That’s all it took. The work brought a new challenge and fresh scenery after her Walmart cashier job.

The days are early, the pay is decent and their bosses take care of them, Carter-McIntyre said. With nonstop trips, they don’t get a lunch break, so sometimes their bosses bring them food during the shift. Plus there’s good company.

“Me and Dejah, we have a lot of fun out here,” Carter-McIntyre said.

The day-to-day

At each stop, the pair have the same routine on the Echols.

It's just before 10 a.m. Carter-McIntyre has a life vest over her white polo uniform shirt and makes her way over the railing, catching the line while the boat docks. Once she fastens the yellow rope to the boat, she flashes a thumbs-up to the captain. Seconds later she's halfway up the dock. She has a few minutes to get to the nearest restroom before the next trip. 

Meanwhile, Belcher lowers the gangway and welcomes new commuters. She keeps a mental count of how many got on and off, then helps customers work the fare machine. (Children ride free, adults generally pay 75 cents or $1.75.)

Every two hours, they switch duties. Just over 80 more trips before their shift ends at 2:30 p.m.

Though the job does get monotonous, they find ways to keep each other entertained.

The other day, Belcher decided to hop onto the dock at Waterside and do cartwheels for a boost of energy. Carter-McIntyre followed – and ripped one of her khaki pant legs.

“I couldn’t find any tape on the boat, so I went the rest of the day like that,” she said. “I was so embarrassed.”

When they’re not doing cartwheels or entertaining themselves by singing and dancing, the pair spend the short trips chatting with passengers. The regulars who ride every day have become friends, Belcher said. That’s one of the best parts of the job.

A few trips later, the deckhands look out to North Landing and spot one of them.

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Belcher and Carter-McIntyre smile. Sutton rides the ferry to his job at BAE Systems and spends most of his trips joking with the deckhands.

"They're two people who make your day feel like it's going a little better,” he said.

Women on the water

Norfolk by Boat has 15 deckhands: seven men, eight women.

“In fact, they're better than some of the guys,” Glover said.

Sometimes the pair get a few critics – older men tend to comment on how they’re handling the line, Carter-McIntyre said.

“It's gender-neutral. I'm a girly girl, but when I'm working, I'm working.”

The deckhands usually just smile and say nothing.

“People who don't ride frequently, they're like, ‘You're a girl, you shouldn't be doing that,’ but I never really felt any type of way about it,” Belcher said.

Capt. Michael Meda, who worked with the pair as a deckhand before being promoted, agreed.

“They can do anything that any deckhand can," he said. “I don't think it matters, female or male.”

In the fall, Belcher will return to Tidewater Community College and Carter-McIntyre to Old Dominion University. Belcher plans to work as a relief deckhand, coming in when needed, and Carter-McIntyre will work her normal hours, then take classes online and in the evenings.

“I would never quit,” Belcher said. “Even if I was to get another job or work around my school schedule, I'll still always be here.”

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They get up at 3 a.m. to make over 80 trips across the Elizabeth River each day: the life of a Hampton Roads deckhand
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