COVID-19 threatens once-robust passenger vessel market

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The passenger boat market has been relatively strong over the past few years, driven largely by ferry operators on all three coasts replacing older vessels and adding to existing fleets. Meanwhile, the relatively robust economy stoked demand for new excursion and tourist vessels.

The COVID-19 pandemic has, at least for now, paused demand for new passenger vessels. There is still real uncertainty about how the virus will affect travel and commuter demand in the near future.

Ferries 8
The 18-passenger Anini I operates off Kauai’s rugged Na Pali Coast.

Still, several ongoing projects awarded before the pandemic continue at U.S. shipyards, potentially helping some weather a slowdown in the new passenger vessel construction.

Meanwhile, Washington State Ferries has begun an ambitious plan to electrify a big piece of its fleet, cutting emissions, fuel consumption and operating costs. Elsewhere, NYC Ferry has continued to build its commuter service, which saw ridership rebound during the summer after sharp drops during COVID-related shutdowns across New York.

Washington State Ferries (WSF) is the largest ferry operator in the U.S. It is also the largest user of diesel fuel in Washington, consuming nearly 19 million gallons a year. That figure will almost certainly drop over the next decade.

The ferry system has two projects under way to electrify its fleet. The first project involves converting the three largest ferries in the fleet — Jumbo Mark II series — from diesel to battery-electric power.

Those 460-foot vessels, Puyallup, Tacoma and Wenatchee, can carry up to 202 cars and 1,800 passengers. They typically work on the busy Seattle-to-Bainbridge and Edmonds-to-Kingston runs. Each currently has a massive diesel-electric power plant. WSF hired Siemens to develop the new battery-electric hybrid propulsion package capable of running in fully electric and hybrid modes. The upgrades will reduce carbon emissions significantly, roughly equivalent to taking 10,000 cars off the road each year.

Separately, WSF has ordered its first battery-electric ferry from Vigor, with construction set to begin in the summer of 2021. The 363-foot Olympic-class vessel will have the capacity for 144 cars and 1,500 people. WSF chose ABB as the propulsion system integrator. It will select and integrate all propulsion system components, including high-capacity batteries, motors and power conversion equipment.

“We must keep building additional hybrid-electric ferries to maintain reliable service,” the ferry system said in a news release, noting that half of its ferries are at least 30 years old. “These greener ferries have the added benefit of reducing nitric oxide emissions by 146 metric tons per year and CO2 emissions by 16,340 metric tons per year; reducing operating and maintenance costs and virtually eliminating engine noise and vibration.”

The new Olympic-class vessel will be a near-identical sibling to four ferries built at Vigor during the last decade with diesel propulsion. It will be able to complete the longest runs in all-electric mode, including the 17-mile Seattle to Bremerton route. The ferry will generate zero emissions in the process.

Delivery of the first boat is scheduled for late 2023, and it will likely serve the Mukilteo to Clinton run. All told, up to five hybrid Olympic-class ferries will be built by 2028. Shoreside charging infrastructure is also under development to replenish batteries aboard the new and converted ferries.

The electrification plan is part of the WSF effort to cut emissions over the coming decades. The ferry system plans to replace 13 diesel ferries with plug-in electric hybrids by 2040, and install plug-in hybrid propulsion packages on six others. Based on current projections, these fleet enhancements would cut diesel use nearly in half.

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, NYC Ferry continues to add to its fleet of fast ferries serving the nation’s largest city. Several of the newest vessels to join the fleet are equipped with engines that meet EPA Tier 4 emission standards.

In April, the ferry system operated by Hornblower added the 97-foot aluminum catamaran H 401 built by Halimar Shipyard of Morgan City, La., and Curiosity, built by Breaux Brothers Enterprises of Loreauville, La., respectively. Incat Crowther provided plans for the two ferries.

Propulsion on the two 354-passenger vessels comes from twin 1,400-hp Baudouin engines that achieve tougher Tier 4 emission rules through a selective catalytic reduction (SCR) system. R.A. Mitchell of New Bedford, Mass., supplied generators for each vessel. The service speed for both vessels is 25 knots.

Since NYC Ferry launched in 2017, it has added 17 85-foot ferries and 16 97-foot ferries to its growing service. As of last spring, Gulf Craft of Franklin, La., and Metal Shark of Jeanerette, La., were each building additional 85-foot ferries, and St. Johns Ship Building in Palatka, Fla., was building a 97-footer. Once completed, the ferry system will have grown to 38 vessels.

The pandemic sharply reduced ferry ridership at NYC Ferry from more than 70,000 people a week in early 2020 to less than 10,000 in March and April. However, in June, the latest period for which data was available, ridership rebounded to more than 60,000 riders for three consecutive weeks.

The Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) took delivery of two new high-speed ferries now operating in San Francisco Bay. Dakota Creek Industries of Anacortes, Wash., delivered Vela in August 2019, as well as Lyra, which entered service in April 2020.

The 143-by-39.5-foot aluminum catamarans are sister vessels to Pyxis (the 2020 American Ship Review Ship of the Year) designed by Advanced Multihull Designs of Sydney, Australia. The propulsion package on the 445-passenger vessels comes from two 3,433-hp MTU 16V 4000 M65 Tier 4 engines paired with HamiltonJet waterjets through ZF reduction gears and Centa shafts. The vessels’ top speed is 38 knots lightship, with a cruising speed of 34 knots.

The wheelhouse on each vessel is equipped with Furuno radars, AIS and GPS, along with Icom VHF radios. The engine room is protected by a Kidde FM-200 fire suppression system. WETA is expecting delivery of a new 300-passenger high-speed ferry, Dorado, later this fall from Mavrik Marine in La Conner, Wash.

Washburn & Doughty Associates in East Boothbay, Maine is building a vehicle ferry for the Maine State Ferry System. Gilbert Associates of Braintree, Mass., designed the 154-foot steel-hulled vessel.

The 28-vehicle, 350-passenger Capt. Richard G. Spear will be powered by twin 750-hp Caterpillar C32 engines, while electrical power will come from twin 99-kW John Deere generators. The ferry also will be equipped with a 250-hp electrically-driven Schottel bow thruster powered by a dedicated John Deere genset.

Capt. Richard G. Spear will run between Bass Harbor and Swan’s Island and Frenchboro off the Maine coast. The vessel is scheduled to launch in late 2020, with delivery planned in 2021.

Along the Gulf of Mexico, Midship Marine of Harvey, La., is continuing work on a 148-by-40-foot high-speed ferry for Seastreak. The 600-passenger vessel will be a sister to Seastreak Commodore, delivered by Gulf Craft in 2018. Incat Crowther designed both vessels.

Propulsion on the new ferry will come from four MTU 12V 4000 M64 main engines delivering 7,500 total hp paired with Kongsberg Kamewa 63S4 waterjets. Two John Deere 6065 generators will supply electrical power. The top speed is estimated to be 38 knots, with a 35-knot running speed.

Eastern Shipbuilding of Panama City, Fla., is getting close to delivering Staff Sgt. Michael Ollis, the first of three 320-foot Ollis-class ferries for Staten Island Ferry in New York. In June, the shipyard launched the second ferry in the series, Sandy Ground.

Elliott Bay Design Group designed the 4,500-passenger vessels powered by four 2,495-hp EMD 12-710 Tier 4 engines. Two mains will each drive a single Voith Schneider propeller at each end through Reintjes DUP 3000P combining reduction gears. Caterpillar gensets will provide electrical power for each ferry.

Staff Sgt. Michael Ollis is named for a U.S. Army soldier who died in Afghanistan. Delivery dates for the two vessels were not available. The third vessel in the series is slated for launch in early 2021.

Yank Marine, based in Tuckahoe, N.J., built the 109-foot Franklin D. Roosevelt for N.Y. Waterway. LeMole Naval Architecture designed the 599-passenger aluminum catamaran. The vessel is powered by twin 1,000-hp Cummins QSK38 engines turning five-bladed ZF nibral props through ZF marine gears at a 2.952:1 ratio.

In New England, Blount Boats of Warren, R.I., delivered the 101-by-40-foot double-ended ferry Southern Cross to South Ferry Co. in Shelter Island, New York. It is a sister ferry to Sunrise and Southside, delivered in 2002 and 2009, respectively. DeJong & Lebet of Jacksonville, Fla., designed the three ferries.

Southern Cross is powered by two 470-hp Caterpillar C-18 engines driving four-blade, ice-strengthened propellers through Twin Disc MG-516 reduction gears and 4-foot Aquamet 22 shafts. The new ferry carries vehicles and passengers to and from Shelter Island from North Haven, on Long Island’s southern tip.

Washington shipbuilder All American Marine stayed busy in the passenger segment over the past year, delivering two tour boats for Great Western Attractions of Seattle.

The 80-foot Orca I and Orca II were designed by Teknicraft of Auckland, New Zealand, and built at All American’s Bellingham shipyard. The vessels have extensions off the hulls on the bow and stern, creating the appearance of a traditional canoe used by native peoples in Puget Sound. The hulls also are painted with symbols important to local native cultures.

Orca I and Orca II can carry 149 passengers. The propulsion package consists of twin Caterpillar C18 engines delivering 803 hp each turning Veem nibral propellers.

All American is continuing work on Water-Go-Round overseen by Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine. The yard is completing an aluminum catamaran that will be the first hydrogen fuel cell ferry operating in the United States. The ferry will serve as a demonstration vessel for the “green” fuel technology. Its performance will be measured by Sandia National Labs in Albuquerque, N.M.

The 70-foot, 84-passenger vessel will be powered primarily by hydrogen stored in a rooftop tank array. The fuel cells will create electricity to power propulsion motors in each hull. Battery banks in each hull will provide “boost power” as needed to help the vessel achieve 22 knots. It will operate in San Francisco Bay.

Another Washington shipbuilder, Armstrong Marine USA of Port Angeles, delivered a 32-foot aluminum catamaran landing craft for North Shore Charters on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Pacific Boats & Yachts also assisted in the project.

The 18-passenger Anini I operates sightseeing, diving and snorkeling cruises along Kauai’s Na Pali Coast. It is powered by two 300-hp Suzuki outboard engines, a walk-through cabin with a head, and a freshwater shower on deck.

Armstrong is also building a rigid-hull inflatable boat (RHIB) for Bay Voyager, which operates tours in San Francisco Bay. The 37-foot, 28-passenger vessel designed by Naiad will have a semi-open cabin with aft canopy. Propulsion will come from twin 300-hp Yamaha outboard motors.

Burger Boat Company of Manitowoc, Wis., delivered Chicago’s Emerald Lady for tour operator Chicago’s First Lady Cruises. Mark Pudlo, principal of Sturgeon Bay, Wis., naval architects Seacraft Design, developed plans for the 98-foot, 250-passenger steel vessel. It is powered by twin 340-hp Caterpillar engines and can be chartered for functions and special tours around the Windy City.

Bar Harbor Whale Watch, located in the Maine tourism hub alongside Acadia National Park, took delivery of the high-speed catamaran Coastal Explorer last September. Gulf Craft built the vessel using an Incat Crowther design. The new vessel is a close sibling to Acadia Explorer and Schoodic Explorer delivered in 2018.

The 98-foot vessel is powered by four Cummins QSK19 mains rated at 800 hp driving four HamiltonJet HM461 waterjets. The 28-knot service speed maintains a modest engine load for improved efficiency, and Humphree interceptors provide active ride control. Two Caterpillar gensets supply electrical power.

American Cruise Lines of Guilford, Conn., took delivery in August 2020 of American Jazz, the third of five inland cruise ships on order from Chesapeake Shipbuilding of Salisbury, Md. The 190-passenger, 99-cabin vessel was scheduled to begin its first Mississippi River tours in fall of 2020.

The delivery comes at a challenging time for an industry that has been decimated by the pandemic. American Cruise Lines, which has taken delivery of two sister ships in recent years and has two others coming in the next couple of years, expects the cruise sector to rebound.

“The outlook for 2021 is tremendous,” Charles B. Robertson, president and CEO of American Cruise Lines, said in a prepared statement. “We look forward to American Jazz’s first full season on the Mississippi, as well as the introduction of American Melody, the next new ship to follow in our modern riverboat series.”

By Professional Mariner Staff