Gavin Buckley has two boats.
One is a pontoon, moored at a rented municipal buoy deep upstream on Spa Creek. It’s a family boat, good for taking your kids out onto the creek for flippies off the side.
The other is a Brig RIB – rigid inflatable boat. Buckley bought it from a friend over on Kent Island, who closed his dealership a short time later because the Ukrainian factory was shut down by the Russian invasion.
Buckley keeps his runabout tied up in a quiet cove near his home. On a recent morning, it bobbed gently among several other small boats at the end of a floating pier, all sitting in water turned bright green by spring pollen pouring down from the surrounding trees.
The only distinguishing sign is a yellow, red, white and green decal on the port side, Annapolis' thistle-and-rose seal.
This is the mayor’s boat, and Buckley is riding high on it after a decisive win in November, giving him a second four-year term. This morning he’s headed to work at City Hall in what is perhaps a unique commute among America’s mayors.
Two or three times a week, Buckley slips his dock lines, then steps carefully behind the helm for a 30-minute trip to City Dock. He ties up among the dinghies and tenders and takes a short walk to City Hall. He thinks he is one of the few people using the city’s creeks to get to work.
“I’ve always said that you look at Sydney harbor or you look at Seattle, I mean … part of the life there is getting on a ferry and coming into work,” he said. “We’re surrounded by water. And I thought, why were we so short-sighted to not utilize the water?
“Getting on the water, I don’t care what you’re on: you still feel better. It’s like therapeutic being on the water.”
It’s the kind of talk Annapolis residents have come to expect from their mayor. He was elected because he had a vision for the city’s future, although the details changed with circumstances and partners willing to work with him.
Festivals celebrating the musical legacy of the old Carr’s Beach resort never happened, and the expanded bike trails are still mostly on paper.
But the city is on a three-year path to revitalizing its downtown waterfront while making it more resilient to flooding caused by climate change. It wasn’t Buckley’s idea alone, but he got the changes started and won support for a complicated finance plan to pay for it.
He was elected a second time on a campaign to finish that project and on a promise – sometimes spoken, sometimes just modeled – to shake the stodgy out of Annapolis. So, Buckley continues to toss out ideas. Some stick, others fall from view.
The latest would create one ferry route between downtown Annapolis and Eastport, a neighborhood across Spa Creek populated by good restaurants, small shops, a tiny brewery, a museum, maritime businesses and some very expensive homes.
“It will create a transportation hub at Fifth Street,” Buckley said, puttering along at 4 knots. “You’re going to be able to get on a bike there or a scooter, or even pick up a 10-minute trolly … that will get you over to the shopping center. So, getting people out of their cars is the goal here.”
This idea is a cool solution to parking woes worsened by the first stage of the City Dock project. But it also is climate-friendly in the kind of "we can do this" way that makes national headlines if successful.
Maybe it takes an Australian immigrant who arrived in Annapolis aboard a sailboat to see the water as an opportunity to combine municipal transit with action on global warming.
But the ferry also has the potential to reshape the city in a way maybe even Buckley doesn’t see yet – one that could put Annapolis at the center of a network of water ferries and shuttles that one day might connect the entire Chesapeake Bay region.
One electric ferry connecting City Dock, the public square at the center of the Annapolis Historic District, and Fifth Street won’t reshape Annapolis by itself.
However, it enters the public discourse at a unique moment, when similar ideas are percolating. A national Chesapeake park, a passenger ferry connecting bay cities, a new beachfront state park celebrating a cultural legacy and a Navy base redevelopment could be just as transformative.
They all have two things in common, the water and Annapolis.
No one has tied all this together. There is no grand plan. The Annapolis ferry will be first out of the docks. The rest just seems to be progressing at the same time. Yet this could be one of those moments where the future begins to take shape.
Maybe Annapolis will find itself at the center of a new Chesapeake Bay network, the place to go to get somewhere on the water. Maybe it needs help from a new governor, an influential state lawmaker, a powerful advocate in Washington, or just a mayor with another idea.
The inspiration for the ferry came while Buckley walked through the big Annapolis powerboat show last fall. He came across a display by the North American distributors of X Shore, an electric boat made in Sweden. It’s the kind of technology its makers hope will revolutionize boating the same way electric car maker Tesla kicked over the automobile sector.
That meeting propelled Buckley’s imagination out onto the water the way his visits to other cities have pushed it toward ideas on land.
“The guy is always thinking, always conceptualizing. You can see the wheels turning for him,” said Patrick DeSocio, head of North American sales for the Stockholm-based boat maker.
He credited the mayor with seeing the potential. So far, sales for the boats have been for recreational uses. But with their adaptability and a battery life that means days between recharging, DeSocio believes they are perfect for "microtransit."
Cities like Seattle and Newport, Rhode Island – where DeSocio is based – already use ferries and shuttles to move people, but they’re still using diesel boats. DeSocio thinks that if Annapolis can prove the concept of electric boat transport, there could be a market for X Shore all along the East Coast, the Great Lakes and California.
The city will consider bids from other companies, but X Shore has an inside track because it was there at the birth of the idea. DeSocio said he expects competitors to pop up.
“Right now, we’ve got shuttles and ferries and microtransit ferries that people can watch and see and small are polluting,” DeSocio said. “Seeing that shift would be something.”
The idea is included in the city transportation plan adopted to cope with the two-year timeline to rebuild the city’s Noah Hillman Garage downtown, followed by the redevelopment of City Dock as a green waterfront park. It would connect Eastport and downtown with parking further out from the water via free shuttles on both sides.
But the year-round ferry is the central link and the idea that makes it fun.
“It’s a free ferry, 100% electric,” Buckley said as he steered his boat out of the cove and onto Spa Creek. “The one that I’m looking at, you can get eight bikes and 10 people plus the skipper.”
The ferry is not connected to plans for a national park on the bay, but Buckley is an advocate for that initiative to get more people out on the water. He said advocates for the park have come to his office and explained how it would create a new way of looking at the bay.
Later this year, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Holland, D-Maryland, is expected to introduce legislation creating the Chesapeake Bay National Recreation Area. The Democrat's office declined to comment on its status.
It's an idea that started back in the '80s in Annapolis, and now has the support of governors in Maryland and Virginia.
If approved – it would probably have to happen before a projected Republican take-over of the House of Representatives in the midterms – the recreation area would link parks and preserves with cultural and historic sites around the bay under the National Park Service.
Annapolis would be the likely gateway to that park, not only because it is a historic port city but because it is the critical mass of the Chesapeake Bay environmental movement. Half a dozen federal agencies including the park service have offices in Annapolis. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is the largest among scores of bay-related nonprofits that call it home.
A new state park also is coming into existence on a remnant of land connected to Carr’s Beach. That historic Black resort operating in the days of segregation was a part of the Chitlin Circuit, the route between venues taken by entertainers now in the pantheon of American Music.
Elktonia-Carr’s Beach will be the first public beach park in Annapolis, creating an attraction not just for area residents. Smaller than the massively popular Sandy Point State Park, it would nonetheless combine access to the water with a powerful cultural story.
The electric ferry, Buckley said from behind the helm of his boat, would be a way to move people there without putting more traffic on the surrounding streets.
“We’ll prototype one route,” he said. “But the dream situation is that we can go to Hawkins Cove or over to Back Creek and go to the new pier they’re putting in at Ellen Moyer Park. You could … walk to the Carr’s Beach installation...”
Separate from those developments, advocates on both sides of the bay are working together to fund a study of possible routes for a Chesapeake passenger ferry. The last time a ferry operated between Annapolis and the Eastern Shore was 70 years ago, when it was the only way to get across the bay without driving hours north.
No one thinks a ferry service would make any difference to the millions of cars and trucks that cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge between Sandy Point and Kent Island every year. State and federal agencies are moving ahead with a plan to build a third span at the spot.
Instead, it would connect tourists with towns founded when the Chesapeake Bay was the highway tying together Annapolis with Kent Island, St. Michaels, Cambridge, Chesapeake Beach, Solomons Island, Crisfield and other waterfront towns. If the National Recreational Area is created, it could be the best way to see its riches.
“I want to be clear about that. It’s not a car ferry. It would not replace the need for the Bay Bride or any addition to the bridge,” said Kristen Pironis, CEO of Visit Annapolis.
Her tourism agency is working with its counterpart in Queen Anne’s County on winning a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Agency for money to study routes and destinations.
The idea started out just as a connection between Annapolis and Queen Anne’s County, but officials in several counties on both sides of the bay have now asked to be included. The study has twice been rejected for funding from other federal agencies, but Pironis believes the application will succeed this time.
“What I think is pretty exciting about this is it would really Add a new way to get around the bay,” Pironis said. “You probably already know the history of the bay and that ferries are not a new idea.
“So, when people are like, ‘Oh, this is such a good idea, I say this is an old idea that we’re resurrecting. This is an idea multiple county executives, multiple mayors, and people around the bay have been looking at..."
What’s exciting then is the possibility of studying how a modern ferry system might work to get more people out of their cars when they travel around the bay.
To Pironis, a ferry service could be a generational change for communities where the tourism was damaged by COVID pandemic restrictions on travel or too far off major highways to benefit much from travel dollars.
“I think that when you start talking about what that could mean for Annapolis and on Anne Arundel County, and what it means for Queen Anne’s County, what it means for counties farther down the Eastern Shore – just having that access to different people and different experiences to tell a better story,” Pironis said. “This could really be a game-changer for this area.”
Finally, and perhaps the farthest in the future of all these possibilities, is the vast former Navy base across the Severn River from Annapolis. Once home to the David Taylor Research Center and a half dozen other small federal agencies, it is mostly empty today. The Annapolis Navy station, the support base for the Naval Academy, is next door.
Buildings that once housed engineering labs and workshops are slated to one day be redeveloped into a mix of office buildings and a hotel by Annapolis Partners. The company, led by academy grad and former tech millionaire Maurice Tose, has controlled the site for 20 years.
One agency is still at the complex, the Joint Spectrum Center. Until it moves, Tose’s plans are stymied. Over the years, however, he has discussed the possibility of connecting this new mini-city to Annapolis by water.
Buckley and DeSocio, the X-Shore electric boat sales director, wonder if a successful ferry program in Annapolis could be a reason to relocate the manufacture of the boats to the old David Taylor site.
Tose has said he’s not ready to publicly discuss the progress of his plans, but the concept approved by Anne Arundel County years ago does not include industrial uses.
Imagine, though, all these threads coming together in Annapolis 10 years from now. The city would be the center of a Chesapeake connected by ferries and water shuttles.
Travel by water – the asset that first made Annapolis a thriving economic center 300 years ago and then served as the foundation of an economy built on recreational boating – could prove once again to be invaluable.
While no one else in Annapolis may be commuting to work as Buckley does, perhaps a different kind of travel by water might happen.
Someone could come to Annapolis and park in the new Hillman garage, then catch a ferry across Spa Creek to Eastport for food and drinks. Or maybe they take Buckley's dream route, skipping to the other side of Back Creek for a short walk to Elktonia Carr’s Beach state park.
Maybe they would come to Annapolis to catch a ferry for Cambridge and the Harriet Tubman National Historic Park nearby, to Calvert County to marvel at the shoreline cliffs or Kent Island for its charms. Private companies already offering occasional day trips, like Watermark in Annapolis, could be part of this, or it could involve new entrepreneurs.
Today, a tour boat connects the Annapolis Maritime Museum with the Thomas Point Shoal Light, the iconic lighthouse owned by Annapolis and maintained by volunteers.
Perhaps a future electric shuttle could connect the museum to Holly Beach Farm, owned by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and not currently open to the public. Its rolling heights would provide a unique vantage point to watch construction of a new bay bridge.
And if Tose’s dream of a waterfront town center across from Annapolis ever comes into being, imagine water taxis and shuttles slipping silently back and forth to City Dock.
The things that connect all these ideas are travel by water and Annapolis.
Maybe it begins with Buckley’s vision to ease the crunch on parking over the next few years as the downtown garage is built and the waterfront redeveloped. Or maybe it doesn’t happen at all.
These are just ideas.
But someone has to get on the boat first.