Q & A With
CAPT. JAMES C. DESIMONE Chief Operating Officer, Staten Island Ferry By John R. Snyder, Publisher & Editor-in-Chief
he Staten Island Ferry has been operated by the City of New York for more than a century and its iconic bright orange livery is known the world over. Making more than 40,200 trips per year, the ferry provides a vital lifeline to Staten Island—the city’s only borough without a subway connection to Manhattan. About 24 million passengers take the ferry each year to get to their jobs, schools or, in the case of tourists, check out the Statue of Liberty and other sights across the 5.2-mile stretch of New York Harbor. Overseeing the operation for the New York City Department of Transportation falls to Captain James “Jim” DeSimone, a colorful, gregarious, affable New Yorker, whose DNA is hardcoded in the maritime business and skin thick enough to handle all of the thorns and brambles that come along with the bureaucratic machinations of New York City. Marine Log had the opportunity to sit down with Jim at his offices at the Staten Island Ferry terminal at St. George to discuss how he got started in the maritime business and what are some of the challenges of operating one of the most well known ferry operations in the world.
MARINE LOG: How did you get started in the maritime business? JAMES DESIMONE: I grew up in Throggs Neck in The Bronx. My father was on the faculty at the SUNY Maritime College and a department chair, so we lived on the campus. We were always around the water and around boats. When it was time to go to college, I attended Maritime College, following my father, one of his cousins and my brothers. When I graduated I went to sea. I ultimately ended up sailing as captain on oil tankers. By that point, I was married and living in Fort Lauderdale. Somewhere along the way, my wife and I were visiting my mother in New York, after my father had passed away. At that time, my mother wanted to donate a painting and a check to the school - I should point out that the check was very modest given that he taught there for 30 years. My brother and I made an appointment to visit the then college president, Rear Admiral (Floyd) Miller, who had been one of my father’s students. When we arrived in his office he mentioned that the Commandant of Cadets & Captain of the school’s training ship position was open and asked me if I would consider it? I
just laughed and politely said no. On the way back to my mother’s house, my brother asked me, “Why wouldn’t you consider that position? You are planning to go ashore.” I told him that they would never hire me. They usually hired an older, retired Navy or Coast Guard Captain. Rich said, “No, I think he was pretty serious.” Following the visit, my wife and I went back to our home in Fort Lauderdale and while we were sitting on our patio one night I asked her how she would feel about moving from our beautiful home there to the Bronx? She said, “If you want to do it, do it.” I called Admiral Miller the next day and asked him if he was serious about the position. He indicated that I was exactly what they were looking for. I was about 34 at the time, active in the maritime industry and understood the specialized mission of the college. So, I applied for the position, went through the search committee process and was ultimately offered, and accepted, the position. As it turned out, the politics of working on a college campus are not much fun, but overall it was a great experience. Many of the relationships I made with students that went through the college during my tenure have lasted to this day. I would say, there is rarely a month that goes by that I don’t get an e-mail from one of them asking, “Hey what are you doing? Let’s go out to dinner.” After 10 years at the college, I joined The Great Lakes Towing Company as Senior Vice President of Operations. That experience had a tremendous impact on my career and provided an exposure to the maritime industry at large. Our customer base included foreign and domestic ship-owners and agents in all trades, the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and Army Corps through a far-flung geographic operation that spanned the Great Lakes, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Florida. M L : How d i d yo u j o i n t h e S t a te n Island Ferry? JD: I had an opportunity to come back to New York with a high-speed ferry operator. I was there for about a year when the Staten Island Ferry had a pretty significant accident in 2003 (Editor’s note: A deadly crash on October 15, 2003 resulted in the death of 11 ferry passengers and dozens of injuries when the ferry Andrew J. Barberi allided with a maintenance pier. The tragic accident served a sea change of the safety culture at Staten Island Ferry). January 2018 // Marine Log 15