Outlook for new ferries brightens due to infrastructure funding, rebounding ridership
The outlook for new ferry construction is brightening as ridership recovers in large U.S. cities and a massive infusion of federal funding comes available from the bipartisan infrastructure law.
Although building activity for ferries and excursion boats remains below historical levels, it is rebounding as operators look to replace older vessels in their fleets. And those who are building new vessels are actively exploring hybrid and electric propulsion — a trend that will likely accelerate in the coming years.
Taken together, the situation is a marked improvement over the early days of the pandemic, but one that has still not fully recovered.
Ferry ridership remains below 2019 levels in large cities where employers have adopted hybrid and remote work options. But it has bounced back substantially from spring 2020 when many urban commuter ferries operated with just a handful of people aboard.
The San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) said July ridership was roughly 60 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to Thomas Hall, a WETA spokesman. Instead of waiting for those routes to fill up, the service is adapting to rising demand elsewhere, such as on weekends and for sporting events. Weekend capacity is approaching pre-pandemic levels.
“Ridership is heading in the right direction,” Hall said.
Tourism has been another driver as many operators serving travelers reported strong demand during the past two summers. The Maine State Ferry Service, North Carolina Ferry System and Miller Boat Line are among the companies that added capacity on routes popular with tourists and seasonal visitors.
Other operators around the U.S. also are pursuing projects with hybrid or fully electric power plants. These include WETA, the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, the Maine State Ferry Service and Casco Bay Lines in Portland, Maine.
Heath Gehrke, operations manager for the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, told Professional Mariner this summer that the service hopes to build up to three new hybrid or hybrid-ready ferries with capabilities that could evolve as battery technology advances.
In the meantime, factors outside the ferry system’s control could slow the pace of fully electric vessels. One key limiting factor is the availability of electrical power on both ends of the ferry route, he said.
“Going green is the right thing to do,” Gehrke said. “There is all kinds of debate about how green that power is, since it might be coming from a fossil fuel somewhere upstream, but we have to start somewhere, so that is what we are trying to do.”
Sandy Ground and Dorothy Day
The Staten Island Ferry put its second Ollis-class vessel into service last winter, and in August it took delivery of the third and final vessel in the series from Eastern Shipbuilding.
The second boat in the series is Sandy Ground, named for a settlement of freed Blacks in New York City. The third vessel is named for the activist Dorothy Day.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams commemorated the arrival of Sandy Ground in February.
“The settlers of Sandy Ground were our ancestors, and they worked hard to build a vibrant community that became a safe haven for so many seeking freedom,” he said at the time. “This boat will forever be a testament to them, their legacy, and their contributions to the New York City we live in today.”
Elliott Bay Design Group of Seattle designed the 320-by-70-foot ferries, which can hold 4,500 passengers. The lead vessel in the series is named for U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Michael H. Ollis, a Staten Island native who died in combat in Afghanistan.
Propulsion across the series comes from four 2,495-hp EMD Tier 4 main engines driving Voith Schneider cycloidal propellers on either end through Reintjes combining reduction gears. The Ollis-class ferries cruise at about 17 knots on the 5.2-mile crossing between Lower Manhattan and Staten Island. Each run takes about 22 minutes.
Other components include three Caterpillar C18 engines on each ferry driving 425-kW generators, Coastal Marine Equipment anchor winches and capstans, and Furuno radars. Icom supplied the VHF radios.
Amenities on the new ferries include a walking track on the upper deck promenade, an updated snack bar, and UES Marine faux wood seating selected following a rider poll of several seating options.
The three new ferries, collectively, replace the 56-year-old John F. Kennedy and the 40-year-old Andrew J. Barberi. Parts from Barberi will be used to extend the life of another vessel, Samuel I. Newhouse.
Mary Ann Market
Miller Boat Line of Put-in-Bay, Ohio, made good use this summer of its new vehicle ferry Mary Ann Market.
The 140-by-38-foot steel ferry is named for the late Miller Ferry owner and matriarch. Mary Ann Market was a longtime resident of South Bass Island in Lake Erie who died in 2010.
Her namesake ferry can hold 28 vehicles and 600 passengers. Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding delivered the vessel, which was initially constructed at Fraser Shipyards. Seacraft Design of Sturgeon Bay, Wis., provided engineering and design support.
The vessel was built with passenger comfort in mind. The main deck and cabin meet accessibility standards for handicapped riders, while the upper deck offers panoramic views of the lake and surrounding islands.
Propulsion on the ferry comes from three 803-hp Caterpillar C18 engines distributed by Fabick Caterpillar. The outboard engines drive 54-inch Michigan Wheel props through Twin Disc reduction gears. The middle engine turns a 54-inch Hundested controllable-pitch propeller through a Hundested gearset.
“The vessel is highly maneuverable and powerful [to facilitate] docking in unprotected docks every half-hour,” said Jake Market, a project manager on the new ferry with Capt. David Bianchi.
Other components include a 160-hp Hundested tunnel thruster, Deflector Marine rudders and Duramax DryMax shaft seals. Electrical power comes from two 65-kW Northern Lights generators. The wheelhouse contains an all-Furuno electronics suite.
Miller Boat Line dates to 1905. It currently operates five ferries that primarily run between Catawba, Ohio, near Sandusky, and the vacation communities on South Bass Island and Middle Bass Island in Lake Erie.
The North Carolina Ferry System welcomed a new fast ferry earlier this year with the arrival of Ocracoke Express.
The 92-foot aluminum catamaran was designed by Elliott Bay Design Group and delivered by U.S. Watercraft of Hubert, N.C. It entered service between Hatteras, N.C., and Ocracoke, N.C.
Jed Dixon, deputy director of the state ferry system, said Ocracoke Express replaces another fast ferry operated since 2019 by Seastreak. The new vessel is designed for day-trippers and walk-on passengers to reduce vehicle traffic and congestion on Ocracoke Island.
The vessel cruises at about 28 knots during the 25-mile voyage in Pamlico Sound. Propulsion comes from four Caterpillar C18 engines driving Thrustmaster waterjets through ZF reduction gears. The wheelhouse is equipped with Furuno navigation electronics.
Passenger amenities include seating for 125 people, racks for 16 bicycles and wireless internet. There is also a well-stocked snack bar.
“It’s working out great,” Dixon said in late August. “We started the service with Ocracoke Express May 17 and have transported 21,421 people to date.”
Puget Sound Express has taken delivery of a 150-passenger aluminum catamaran that joins the company’s fleet of whale-watching and eco-tourism vessels.
All American Marine built the 77-foot Swiftsure using a design from Teknicraft of Auckland, New Zealand. Swiftsure is slightly larger than Saratoga, a sister vessel delivered in 2018 from the same shipyard and naval architect. It is All American’s third delivery for Puget Sound Express, which is based in Edmonds, Wash.
“Once again, this vessel has exceeded all performance expectations while incorporating EPA Tier 3 engines,” Peter Hanke, co-owner of Puget Sound Express, said in a prepared statement. “Despite numerous supply chain challenges during the construction process, All American still delivered this exceptional vessel on time and on budget.”
Teknicraft developed the design using computational fluid dynamics. It features wave-piercing bows and dynamic hydrofoils to improve efficiency and passenger comfort. During sea trials, the vessel’s fuel burn was nearly the same lightboat as it was fully laden.
“We’ve done many years of research to develop a vessel design that’s particularly low-wake, due in large part to our unique hydrofoil system that doesn’t displace as much water and create waves as is the case with traditional hull design,” said naval architect Nic de Waal of Teknicraft.
Propulsion on Swiftsure comes from four 800-hp Scania DI16 083M engines paired with HamiltonJet HJ364 waterjets. Electrical power comes from Cummins Onan gensets. The boat’s top speed exceeds 40 knots.
Swiftsure is equipped with a modern wheelhouse built in a chevron-like shape with Llebroc helm chairs for a captain and mate. The vessel also features a Furuno navigation suite, Seatronx 24-inch touch-screen displays, a Nobeltec TimeZero navigation computer and a Maretron tank and vessel monitoring system. Standard Horizon supplied the VHF radios.
The ADA-friendly passenger compartment has Beurteaux seats, seven big-screen TVs, and a premium sound system. The bow area has a stadium-style arrangement that provides guests with optimal wildlife viewing.
Qathen Xwegus Management Corp. (QXMC) took delivery last fall of the 32-by-12-foot water taxi Goat 1 from Brix Marine of Port Angeles, Wash. Brix Marine also designed the aluminum-hulled catamaran.
QXMC is the business arm of the Klahoose First Nation, which is based on Cortes Island, British Columbia. The water taxi represents a new venture for the group, which also operates forestry, aquaculture, tourism and retail businesses.
“I couldn’t be prouder to own this new vessel and operate this new business. It’s exciting to see our team establishing strategic foundations for future generations of the Klahoose Nation,” Chief Kevin Peacey said in a prepared statement.
Propulsion on Goat 1 comes from twin 270-hp Volvo Penta D4 engines paired with Volvo’s Aquamatic DPI outdrives. It is equipped with Garmin navigation electronics.
The Brix Marine model 3212-CTC hull features a walk-around cabin configuration, a heated cabin and 12 individual passenger seats. Goat 1 can hold 300 gallons of fuel and 25 gallons of fresh water. •