“Passengers in green have to pay double,” remarks Captain Jim Gardner as Philadelphia fans board the Norma Del, a vessel that’s part of the fleet of St. Johns River Taxis that pick up passengers at various points where the river meets Jacksonville’s Urban Core. A handful of the guests clad in Eagles attire smirk in response, firing back with comments about a certain quarterback Philly fans graciously bequeathed to the Jags.
“Yeah we had a tip jar set up for two years to get him here,” retorts Gardner, standing at the controls of the St. Johns River Taxi. “It finally worked!”
This exchange comes shortly after Gardner explained to me one of his life mottos: work like a sailor, party like a pirate. And with 40 years of work experience in the maritime industry, Gardner has done just that. Gardner began his career working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for 28 years before becoming a captain for the St. Johns River Taxi. Working primarily in nautical charting, Gardner completed research to create the road maps of the sea.
“I was truly one of those people where you find a career that you love and you never work a day in your life,” said Gardner. “But it’s sort of like the military, you either move up or move out. I had reached the top of my rank, so it was time to make room for some young blood.”
After retiring from NOAA, Gardner couldn’t stay off the water. He set sail in the Gulf of Mexico, working as a merchant marine delivering supplies to oil fields. He’d spend weeks on end in the waters of the Gulf.
“What’s so different about this job is the fact that I go home every night,” said Gardner. “At this point in my life, I want to be home every night with a drink in my hand and my dog on my lap.”
Now Gardner spends his days aboard one of the four vessels of St. John’s River Taxi, unable to stay off of the water in his days of “retirement”. It’s in this role that he shuttles passengers along the route of the River Taxi, providing rides for everyone from Jags fans to wedding parties to the occasional commuter.
“It’s not just Jags fans that we pick up, but whatever team we may be playing that week,” explains Gardner. “So a lot of the time we get cheering matches or competitions that start during the ride.”
Putting along the rivers of the St. Johns, the cityscape of downtown sprawls before the hull of the Norma Del. As we approach the stadium, passengers point out brake lights beginning to shine on the Main Street Bridge as traffic builds.
“I think that sometimes fans wish that the boat would go a little faster,” Gardner laughs. “That’s when I remind them that they’d just be sitting in traffic if they’d driven to the game instead. On the boat you get a view of the entire city, downtown is so beautiful from the water at night.”
In certain moments along the ride, Gardner belies a sense of earnestness. He IDs docks and buildings, explaining the flow of the tide in the river and how the caramel color of the water is created by the tannin released by fallen oak leaves.
“And there’s Jacksonville’s longest extended stay hotel,” says Gardner. “There’s three meals a day and guests get an hour of exercise.”
I blink toward his freckled face as he continues.
“It’s really easy to get in,” Gardner says, referring to what I now know to be the riverfront jail. “But it takes a bail bondsman to get out!”
He laughs with ease, approaching the River Taxi dock located outside the TIAA Bank Field. Jags and Philly fans alike file off the boat, paying their nominal fee for a ride on the river and stress-free transport to the game.
“May the best team in teal win!” Gardner says as his passengers depart.
Laughs erupt as I confirm: this is a man that has never really worked a day in his life.