Story By Teresa A. McLamb
Photography By Kristin Goode
As a child living in the Caribbean, Marybeth Ray fortified herself for visits to the mainland by running to the ocean and drinking from it.
“I wanted it in my system,” she says.
Today, seated comfortably in the bridge of MV Southport, Captain Ray looks totally at ease guiding the ferry through the Cape Fear River. Her khaki uniform is in stark contrast to the gold sailboat dangling from one ear lobe and the propeller attached to the other. Both gifts from her husband, they’re always on her ears. Her life, after all, centers on the water.
Ray grew up as a “military brat.” Her dad was a Marine Corps officer, so the family lived all over the Southeast. Ray discovered boats as an eight-year-old living in Mobile, Alabama, but it was their move to Andros Island in the Bahamas that really changed her life. She was 12 when they moved there and she stayed until she was 35. That entire time, she played and worked on boats, sailed and enjoyed diving and surfing.
After high school, Ray got a job working at the U.S. Navy Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center on Andros, where 1,500 Americans were living and working on the base. Ray had started there in high school, running their marina and the rental boats. From there she became a small-boat captain. As a civilian contractor, she ran pilot-type boats, taking equipment and people out to ships and submarines. Ray worked at the base as a contractor for 15 years, running torpedo retrievers, target boats and research vessels.
“The highlight for me was on a boat that made weekly trips from Andros to Palm Beach, Florida, so I had the best of both worlds,” she says.
The 200-mile trip took 28 hours across and 36 going back. The same boat was used to supply auxiliary bases.
“We’d spend a night somewhere down island,” says Ray. “I had a tiny motorcycle so I’d bring that and explore a bit. Pretty much in the Bahamas, when I wasn’t running boats, I was out playing on boats.”
A sailor since 12 years of age, Ray mastered Sunfish, then Hobie Cats, then windsurfing. She’s recently added paddleboarding to the list. Her skills on the water served her well in many adventures.
“One of my best vacations was on my 15-foot Boston Whaler,” says Ray. “I had a pop tent onboard. I lived on that Whaler, cruising the islands for eight days. The Whaler was shallow [draft]. I could take it anywhere. In those days I was staying in marinas for $7.50 a night and had access to showers and swimming pools and restaurants. I had a blast.”
Another time, Ray and her Labrador retriever spent a month on a 20-foot Grady White cruising the Florida Keys and the Bahamas with a surfboard and a kayak.
Then there was the time that she and her brother drove her 15-foot Whaler from Andros Island to Florida. They pulled in the marina at Boca Raton alongside 100-foot yachts.
“It was just something I had to do,” Ray says.
Ray has carried her water adventures over to her new life in Southport. She was recently pictured in the Southport Pilot at the Blessing of the Fleet with her paddleboard and her dog, Rosie, in a pink polka dot life jacket.
“We were the only self-propelled boat that showed up,” says Ray.
Ray and her husband left Andros in 1995, “just looking for a pleasant place to settle,” a place where they could enjoy the water but also have a change of seasons.
“We fell in love with this area,” she says. “Obviously, it’s very water oriented. Wilmington had a lot to offer as far as downtown.”
They moved without looking at the job market. Ray was fortunate to be accepted for an opening on the state’s ferry system. Ray worked for seven years on the deck and as relief captain and was promoted to captain in 2003. After her husband’s death, she moved to Southport to be closer to work.
“It’s one mile from my front porch to the deck of the boat, which is rather sweet,” she says.
The ferry schedule is one week on with grueling 12.5-hour days and then one week off.
“It’s a fabulous schedule,” Ray says, and that sentiment was echoed by her mate Ron Hilton. “The best part about this job is I love the fact that we’re on the water all day: the constantly changing light, weather, water patterns.”
Because there are always two people in the bridge, they sometimes take a quick trip outside to photograph a sunset or look at something unusual. The week before this interview a giant turtle popped its head out of the water to greet her.
“I’m a fan of old, classic boats,” Ray says, “so I love seeing those. It’s always a joy to see jumping dolphins.”
On the ferry, Ray has transported llamas, 18-wheelers and hundreds of school children on buses. She’s met people kayaking from Florida to Maine through the ICW and the river.
The week on/week off schedule means one week’s vacation can turn into three, and Ray took advantage of that in May to visit Maine with her current husband, George. The two are renovating a family cottage on the water. She says they didn’t plan it, but the interior has taken on the look of a ship, with built-in settees and Sunbrella® cushions.
George shares his wife’s passion for boats.
“Our backyard is like Boats-R-Us with kayaks, dinghies, Whalers,” says Ray. “My husband is about as much of a boat nut as I am. He’s gotten to do some incredible sailing deliveries the past few years: Atlantic crossings, Buenos Aires up to the Caribbean.”
The two actually met at an emu roast hosted by a couple that George had helped build a steel-hulled boat on Jabbertown Road in Southport.
As for the MV Southport, Ray hopes to be its captain until she retires in about a dozen years. At that point, maybe she and George will find the time to devote to their “project boat,” a schooner that they hope to restore to first-class seaworthiness.