A day on the river beats just about any day at work.
For Ron Hilliard though, boating on the river is exactly what he does for work.
That’s really hard to beat.
Hilliard is the director of operations for Lakeshore Marine, the company that holds the short-term contract to operate Jacksonville’s water taxis. The job puts him at the helm of a 100-passenger pontoon boat most days of the week.
The water-taxi service returned to Jacksonville on Friday, after the city had floundered through two months of legal maneuverings to replace the previous vendor.
Hilliard had worked for the old company as a captain.
If hassling through two months of undetermined employment had been stressful for Hilliard, now that he’s back on the water, it barely shows.
“It’s exciting and a relief. We worked so long on the bidding process,” he said with a good-natured smile.
Instead of committee meetings, Hilliard is now surrounded by things that seem to matter a whole lot more — the hypnotic sound of water sloshing against pontoons, the view of Jacksonville’s skyline, the nearness of a concrete support piling under the Main Street Bridge and droplets spraying out over Friendship Fountain.
When a young girl asked him how fast the boat could go, Hilliard pushed the controls to full throttle.
“It makes me feel good when the kids smile,” Hilliard said. “I get all kinds of questions from them. They say, ‘Can you ring the bell? Can you honk the horn?’”
Jacksonville’s water-taxi service gives people access to the water for a very small fee, Hilliard said.
That’s especially good for people who can’t afford boat ownership or one of the more expensive tours.
The service’s first day back in business fell on the same day as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ first preseason game. Fans seemed to have noticed.
Between 4:30 p.m. and 1 a.m., Hilliard figured he’d shuttled about 1,300 passengers between the Wyndham Hotel and Metro Park, 100 at a time.
Asked what it takes to do the job, Hilliard took for granted his ability to effortlessly position against a dock what is essentially a huge floating bus.
“You have to be personable, you have to have good customer service,” he said.
At 24, Hilliard seems young for the job. But, he said he’s been out on boats since before he was old enough to remember it.
Hilliard grew up in Jacksonville on a creek off the Ortega River.
The earliest memory he does have of boating is, at 6 years old, spending weekends shrimping with his dad on an 18-foot Seacraft off Cumberland Island.
The elder Hilliard’s job was shrimping. The younger’s was scooping up the catch from the bottom of the boat with a dustpan and putting it in a cooler.
“It was great — a boy’s weekend out,” he said. “It was a big, dirty and fishy day hanging out with my dad.”
In college, Hilliard studied to be an air traffic controller. But for a job, he went back to boating.
He worked at Epping Forest Yacht Club, first as a dock hand, then a sailing instructor and finally, assistant dock master. The work put him on the water almost every day, allowing him to earn his captain’s license.
When not at work driving a boat, Hilliard takes his girlfriend, Devon, out on his own boat.
Asked about his plans for the future, Hilliard said he’d like to secure a five-year contract from the city to operate the water taxi.
In another 10 or 20 years? He’d still like to be running the water taxi.
And, why not? He’s already got the best job in the world.