For tourists visiting nearby Colonial Williamsburg, the Jamestown ferry is part of the fun - a sleepy, 40-minute boat ride across the James River near the spot where Capt. John Smith and his small band founded the first permanent English settlement in the New World.

For residents of Surry County commuting the other direction to work, it's something else again - frustrating battle with 50-year-old vessels whose frequent breakdowns, scheduling problems and crowds of tourists make almost every river crossing an unwelcome adventure.

For the past two years they have been bombarding the Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation, which runs the ferry, with stories of onboard fires, car-logged approach roads, equipment failures and other problems they say confuse and endanger everyone who attempts to set foot on board.

"The river crossing continues to be inadequate," said Charles Agle, Surry's county administrator. "It's a question of the age of the equipment, divided responsibility and a highway department oriented narrowly toward overland transportation."

John Wray, director of operations for the state highway department, acknowledged that the four ferries plying the Jamestown crossing occasionaly have been plagued by minor problems in recent years. He said the state highway agency recently took steps to correct those problems by commissioning a $380,000 environomental impact study of improvements and alternatives to the present river crossing, and commissioning the design of a new $3.5 million 55-car ferry that would be more than twice as large as the smallest vessels now in the fleet.

Delivery of the new boat, however, is probably two years away.

The Jamestown ferry flap, like the Interstate 66 controversy in Fairfax and Arlington counties, is an example of new and conflicting uses and attitudes overtaking a long-adequate transportation system in a changing Virginia.

Ferry commuters used to be a rarity in Surry County - a long rural and once self-contained county of 5,800 people in Virginia's pork and peanut Southside.

But the growing tourist and industrial complex across the river between Williamsburg and Newport News has spawned residential development in the county and lured more and more Surry residents north over the water to work.

Bill Shelburne, a landscaper for Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, estimates that at least 300 commuters like him use the Jamestown Ferry everyday - nearly one-third of the 900 to 1,000 cars the ferry carries daily.

He says the commuters are being shorchanged by the highway department, which he says orients the ferry service to tourists.

He notes that the ferry, which operates from 5:10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. only, runs every 30 minutes from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. but only every 40 minutes during the prime commuting hours before and after that.

Last June Robert L. Addison, another Surry commuter, staged a one-man demonstration against the tourist crush - pulling his car out to block five tourist buses from boarding a special ferry sent to carry them ahead of waiting cars.

But harder than tourists for many Surry Countians to live with are the vagaries of a ferry-crossing itself, such as winter ice, which shut the ferry down for 17 days last January, sending the frustrated commuters on a 69-mile detour eastward across the James River bridge at Newport News.

For these people, some of whom Shelburne acknowledges seek a profit in future land development in Surry, the county has formed a bridge-tunnel committee to work for a permanent and fixed river crossing.

Wray of the highway department said any bridge would cost the money-short agency a minimum of $20 million and must be considered at least 10 years away.

And that is without reckoning on the fury of historic preservationists at the prospect of viewing a highway bridge from the restored colonial settlement that portrays the Jamestown colony.

Both the highway department and the citizens committee are thus concentrating for the moment on the mechanical problems of the ferries that have produced prolonged fires in the exhaust stacks of the boats, rudder damage from debris in the water, steering difficulties, oil leaks and - according to Shelburne - at least 23 other incidents between Feb. 9 and May 30 alone.

Wray said much of the existing traffic bottleneck has been caused by the ship collision that closed the James River bridge at Hopewell earlier this year and increased the traffic at the Jamestown ferry by about 30 per cent.

Bicentennial traffic has added to the load, he said, which he thinks will decrease somewhat as time passes. He said part of the feasibility study being undertaken by the department is a look at the possibility of moving the ferry slip northward a few hundred yards on the Surry County side to a stubby peninsula called Swan's Point. This, he said, would cut one mile off the ferry trip and shorten the trip from 20 minutes to five minutes.

Swan's Point, however, was deeded to the National Park Service by the late Franz Von Schilling, a Surry County landowner reportedly aghast at the thought that the existing riverscape at Jamestown might be altered in any way.

"We better not talk much about putting a bridge there (on Swan's Point) now or we'll just screw things up," Wrap said. "But if the impact statement says we can move the ferry there, that will improve things, and who knows, we might have a bridge there in another 10 years."