If everything goes according to Sherman Baldwin’s plan, he’ll be operating a 125-passenger ferry seven days a week between downtown Sarasota’s Centennial Park boat basin and the Bradenton Beach City Pier by July 4.
Baldwin, who holds a master captain’s license from the U.S. Coast Guard, already takes some 20,000 passengers on scenic cruises of Sarasota Bay each year from the Bradenton Beach pier as owner of Paradise Boat Tours. “That makes us the largest commercial passenger vessel operator in Southwest Florida,” he says.
But his Sarasota Manatee Ferry won’t be just for tourists. “We hope visitors will use it,” he says, “but the business and marketing model we developed is for locals—day-trippers to Anna Maria Island, people wanting to go to doctors’ appointments and to shows at the Van Wezel.” Baldwin is reaching out to businesspeople; he says John Horne, owner of the Anna Maria Oyster Bar, for example, will pay an hour’s salary to each employee who uses the ferry to get to and from work.
The Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, for one, is rooting for Baldwin to succeed. “Traffic is not getting any better, and there’s not a county or municipality that doesn’t believe in the importance of multi-modal transportation for our region,” says executive director Elliott Falcione. “If Sherman can pull this off it would be a big boost.”
Once passengers disembark on the Bradenton Beach side, Falcione points out, they can take advantage of the free public trolley that daily plies the length of Anna Maria Island. A half-million passengers rode it in 2016. Ride-share services like Uber and Lyft are another option.
In February, the City of Sarasota provisionally approved Baldwin’s plan. He’s negotiating with the city to use the 10th Street boat basin as his embarkation point.
The roundtrip fare will be $12.50; 10-pass packages and monthly and annual passes will be sold. “I don’t intend to get rich,” says Baldwin. “We believe in this. There are communities across the country having their land-based [transportation] infrastructure stretched to the limit.”
Baldwin has been boating Sarasota Bay as a visitor since 1985, and as a full-time resident since 2010. Before he moved here, he worked for High Line Cruises, piloting a 150-foot, 175-passenger high-speed catamaran from Hyannis to Nantucket and back.
“Smart cities don’t just look at one solution to improve their parking and transportation issues,” says Mark Lyons, general manager of the City of Sarasota’s parking division, who has been working with Baldwin. Ferries and water taxis, Lyons points out, not only take cars off the road and reduce parking demand in the city; they also reduce the carbon footprint released into the environment. “I’m keen on the idea,” he says. “This will be a significant boost to the ease of movement through downtown.” In addition, Baldwin plans to have five or six water taxis operating on Sarasota Bay this spring.
Meanwhile, Gulf Islands Water Shuttle, a weekend water taxi service that aims to become daily by next high season, launched in mid-March from the Bradenton Beach City Pier with regular stops at Coquina Beach, MarVista and Whitney Beach Plaza. It’s an outgrowth of the Gulf Coast Transit Alliance, which was formed last fall to strategize ways to manage the increasing traffic congestion the region is facing.
Baldwin hopes the Sarasota Manatee Ferry will expand to Bradenton and Palmetto by January 2018. “I tell people, whether it’s five weeks, five months, five years or five decades, many people will use waterways for transportation. It’s inevitable; it’s going to happen,” he says.