Speedy and nimble, Dorado does it all for the S.F. Bay Ferry fleet
Capt. Ryan Boatright backed Dorado away the Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco and spun the bow to the east. Within a moment or two, he had accelerated to 36 knots.
“It’s like the Ferrari of ferries,” Boatright said as the vessel crossed San Francisco Bay toward Alameda, Calif. “It’s very fast and sporty.”
Dorado is the lead boat in the new Dorado class for the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA). Mavrik Marine of La Conner, Wash., built the vessel using a design developed by One2three Naval Architects of Sydney, Australia.
The 129-foot Dorado was designed for performance and versatility. It is the fastest ferry in WETA’s 16-vessel fleet, and the only one that can access all 12 terminals within the system. Its speed even builds extra flexibility into the schedule.
“It’s fast enough to do the Vallejo run but small enough to do the Harbor Bay and South San Francisco runs,” Boatright said.
At 320 people, its capacity represents a happy medium that can adequately serve its long-haul routes as well as shorter ones to Oracle Park for San Francisco Giants games. Dorado also can carry 37 bikes — an important amenity in a region with a lot of bicycle commuters.
“We designed this vessel so it can be our universal go-to class that can handle anything,” said Timothy Hanners, WETA’s operations and maintenance manager.
The Dorado class is the latest new series built for WETA, which contracts with Blue & Gold Fleet to operate the ferries. Along with Dorado, four 400-passenger Hydrus-class ferries and three 445-passenger Pyxis-class ferries have entered service since 2017. All eight meet EPA Tier 4 or equivalent emissions standards.
Meanwhile, WETA is currently repowering its four 225-passenger Gemini-class ferries to meet Tier 4 requirements. JT Marine of Vancouver, Wash., has completed the upgrades to Gemini and Pisces, while the third vessel in the series, Scorpio, remains at the shipyard. WETA expects to award contracts by 2023 to design and build a new class of all-electric ferries that will operate short routes around the Bay Area.
“We already have the cleanest passenger ferry fleet in the nation, but we know that is not enough,” said Thomas Hall, a WETA spokesman. “We hope that the Dorado class will be the last class of new vessels built with diesel engines to ever go under contract for us.”
Rush-hour commuters lined up for Dorado outside the Ferry Building well ahead of the vessel’s 1730 departure on an early September afternoon. The ferry got underway with 153 passengers and 27 bikes for the 15-minute run to the Seaplane Lagoon Ferry Terminal in Alameda.
Dorado was quiet and smooth as it sped across the bay in an east-southeast direction. The route runs under the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and skirts an anchorage for deep-draft ships. Boatright cut the speed down to 9 knots as the ferry entered the protected waters inside the Alameda Rock Wall jetty.
He turned to port and entered the Seaplane Lagoon. Boatright moved to the portside helm station for the final approach and guided the vessel into position, his head out the window for the last few seconds to gauge Dorado’s proximity to the pier. The return trip followed a similar path across the bay back to San Francisco.
WETA was growing rapidly in the years leading up to the Covid-19 pandemic, and in 2019 it carried 3 million passengers. Ridership cratered during Covid-19 and related shutdowns in California that lasted well beyond those implemented in other states. The agency has responded by reducing fares and tweaking its schedule to capture more riders outside of the traditional 9-to-5 commuters, many of whom have not returned to the office full time.
As of late summer, WETA’s weekend ridership was roughly 85 percent of pre-pandemic levels, while weekday ridership was still less than 60 percent restored. Still, the system has recovered more quickly than other local public transit options, including the regional subway system.
Dorado features a sleek design that stands out compared to the more traditional appearance of the Hydrus- and Pyxis-class ferries. “The external aesthetic is low-profile, pleasant and minimal impact (while) being timeless, elegant and stylish,” Steve Quigley, managing director of One2three Naval Architects, said via email.
In this case, form follows function. The Dorado class was designed for maximum aerodynamic and hydrodynamic efficiency and minimum fuel consumption. The result is a ferry that burns 30 to 40 percent less fuel than a comparably sized ferry within the WETA fleet.
“That’s a game changer in terms of reducing the cost of public transport and also reducing overall transport-generated emissions,” Quigley said.
Dorado’s passenger areas spread across two decks with a mix of indoor and outdoor seating. The main level features airline-style seats, tables and a snack bar with numerous outlets for phone and laptop charging. The upper level features an open aft deck for sightseeing, along with a covered section aft of the wheelhouse with bench-style seating.
“The layout has been specifically designed for rapid passenger movement, ease of operation and fast turnarounds, as well as passenger comfort and amenities,” Quigley said, adding that the vessel has wide aisles and meets guidelines for disabled riders.
Dorado operates with five crewmembers consisting of a snack bar attendant, three deck hands and the captain, who steers the ferry from a spacious wheelhouse on the upper deck. The U-shaped dashboard is equipped with touch-screen displays showing engine performance, radar and chartplotter alongside a Furuno navigation suite. Icom VHF radios are located within arm’s reach above the captain’s seat.
That helm chair is equipped with a tiller built into the left armrest, and wing stations on the port and starboard sides facilitate docking alongside different terminals.
Propulsion on Dorado comes from twin 2,575-hp MTU engines driving HamiltonJet waterjets through ZF reduction gears. The selective catalytic reduction units needed to meet EPA Tier 4 emissions rules are installed above the gears. Boatright said the propulsion system can be feathered for superior slow-speed control, while providing tremendous power when needed.
“I can’t say enough about the maneuverability. It is just awesome to have that much capability,” he said. “Sometimes we are out here in big winds and storms and we are using all the power we have, and with this boat there is plenty of power in reserve for maneuvering and it is reassuring to have that.”
Electrical power comes from John Deere Tier 3 engines driving Marathon Magnaplus 99-kW generators located in each hull. Humphree interceptors provide improved efficiency and ride control.
Mavrik Marine won an initial two-vessel contract to build Dorado and its sister ferry Delphinus. WETA subsequently authorized a separate two-boat contract with the shipyard, albeit with changes primarily to the power plant. This is the first time the shipyard has partnered with the San Francisco operator.
Shipyard President and CEO Zachery Battle said his team worked hard at the outset to understand WETA’s needs and expectations. Mavrik’s relationship with One2three further contributed to a successful lead ferry.
“One2three does an excellent job and they have one of the best hull shapes for this kind of vessel in the business. That can only happen if there is a good relationship between the naval architect and the builder,” Battle said.
“I don’t think it is the norm that other builders invest as much time in the client to figure out exactly how they will be using boats, what is important to the crews that will be running the boats, how will they be maintained, and what are specific limitations or abilities for maintaining these vessels,” he continued. “That is what leads to the success of the project.”
Mavrik is currently making progress on Delphinus, which is slated for delivery early next year. The final two ferries in the series, tentatively scheduled for delivery in 2024, will be equipped with four MAN engines and four HamiltonJet waterjets.
Dorado entered service in May. Hanners said it has been positively received by captains and crews, many of whom are awaiting the arrival of the three other ferries in the series. The riders also seem to appreciate the amenities built into the passenger spaces.
“Overall, the biggest feedback we’ve gotten is that people enjoy the upper deck,” he said. “If the weather is nice, that is the perfect spot to be in.” •