A few minutes into a voyage out of Connecticut’s Thames River toward the North Fork of Long Island, Capt. Norm Spector commands helmsman Tyler Richards to maintain a course for fast ferry Sea Jet’s transit of Long Island Sound.
Using visual landmarks, the men guide the Cross Sound Ferry Services vessel through areas in which they may encounter various hazards including challenging currents, recreational vessels and other commercial traffic.
“We always have at least two people in the wheelhouse,” Spector said. “The mate’s usually up here when we’re underway. In good weather we use a helmsman. It frees me up to do some plotting on the radar — and it’s an extra set of eyes.”
The fast ferry Sea Jet, a wave-piercing catamaran.
The intense watchkeeping can be vital to safety. That’s because the 122-foot Sea Jet motors through the sound a little faster than it used to. The 5,000-hp wave-penetrating catamaran is one of eight Cross Sound Ferry vessels that have been repowered in recent years. With a new pair of D-rated Caterpillar 3512 engines, Sea Jet manages a cruising speed of 30 to 32 knots.
The company’s New London-based fleet of passenger and car ferries are workhorses of maritime transit across the Long Island and Block Island sounds. The boats ferry casino-goers, traveling salesmen, agricultural produce and other freight from Long Island to Connecticut and tourists from New England to the North Fork and Block Island.
Mary Ellen engineer Gary Moore with a Caterpillar 3516B.
Operating under the marketing slogan “Cross Sound or Cross Your Fingers,” the vessels promise an efficient, relaxing water link that is a sanctuary for travelers who otherwise would endure the headaches of driving all the way across Long Island to New York City and up through southern Connecticut on highways notorious for gridlock.
Spector and his officers, however, must be mindful of a different type of traffic as they crisscross Long Island Sound.
“We have recreation boats from the Thames River and the Connecticut River. We see a lot of commercial traffic in some deep-draft ships to New Haven and Bridgeport and Riverhead Platform and some tugs and barges,” the captain said.
On a summer Friday, as Sea Jet approached a channel near the sound’s easternmost end, the master and mate kept a keen eye out for small pleasure craft. With clear visibility, the crew concluded that it must not be a very good time to fish for striped bass or togs that morning, because not many boats were present.
“This area we’re going through here — Plum Gut — is a major recreational fishing area,” Spector noted. “It has all kinds of boats and we have to run the ferry through them. Most of the time it’s not a problem and everybody’s very cooperative. But if there’s fog, it can be a little bit of a challenge. At night we use the night-vision camera to find the lobster pots.
“But that’s in the summertime. In the wintertime, it’s just us.”
Sea Jet’s captain, Norm Spector, left, gives commands as helmsman Tyler Richards steers the 122-foot ferry in Long Island Sound. Mate Kevin Murphy also stands watch.
Aside from the vessel traffic, the hydrodynamics can be treacherous because it’s a narrow strait where seawater pours in and out of the sound. On this day, the crew sailed through a 4-knot crosscurrent, aided by the modern Caterpillar engines and a new ride control system that helps stabilize the vessel.
“What you have here is a really strong current,” the master said. “All the water from Long Island Sound flows through here and Plum Gut and The Race, and you can get 5-knot currents. You can get wind against the current, so I’ve seen 8- to 10-foot standing waves in Plum Gut.”
In the engineer’s control room, the chief engineer, Dick Donovan, praised his new Caterpillars while monitoring the vessel’s bilge alarms, oil pressure, temperature, fuel level and video from the engine compartment. The engines replaced an aging set of Deutz 620s, which had maintenance issues and their top speed was only 26 to 28 knots.
“We had a lot of mechanical problems, and it was hard to get parts,” Donovan said. “It was a state of constant repairs. Piston failures were very common, heads, a myriad of things and a constant battle.”
The new Cats are “a big improvement — probably one-tenth of the labor that the other engines required,” he said. “They’re made for what we do — short run, pull ‘em down and a short run back.”
Almost all of Cross Sound’s ferries have been repowered since 2009, and the installation of Tier 2 engines has made the fleet cleaner and greener as well as faster and more efficient. All of the refits were done at the company’s own shipyard, Thames Shipyard & Repair Co., just upriver in New London. The company, controlled for three generations by the Wronowski family, also owns nearby Thames Towboat Co.
“One of the things that helped us do the repowering is we have our own full-service shipyard that’s integral to our operation,” said Adam Wronowski, vice president. “My grandfather’s thought was, if you can’t fix it yourself, you shouldn’t be using it.”
“Of the nine ferries we have, we’ve had eight of them out of the water (and) had the engines out to replace them or refurbish them,” he said. “We don’t have two vessels that are alike, so it’s really what fits the vessel best. We’re happy with the Cats on the Sea Jet and we’re just as happy with the EMD engines on the Susan Anne.”
Sea Jet’s chief engineer, Dick Donovan, monitors the vessel’s systems from the engineer’s control room. Electronic displays, video and alarms provide early warning if something goes wrong with fuel, oil levels, pressure, temperature, gears or hydraulics.
Susan Anne, a 49-year-old 250-foot car ferry, was equipped with General Motors Electro-Motive Diesel engines that did not need to be replaced. Instead, an upgrade kit was available to modernize the existing engines and reduce emissions.
“It went from Tier zero to Tier 2 without having to take the engine out of the vessel. It’s great because you’ve got a good, solid piece of equipment there, and instead of taking it all out you can do an upgrade,” Wronowski said. “Besides being much cleaner and greener, it’s faster and the ride is smoother and it is quieter. That gave the ferry a new lease on life.”
Aboard the 250-foot car ferry Mary Ellen, engineer Gary Moore takes care of a pair of Caterpillar 3516s, which were installed in 2010.
“This business is tough on the engines, because it’s start-and-stop,” Moore said of the one hour, 20 minute auto ferry crossing time at 15 knots.
“We use foam pre-filters over the Caterpillar (air) filters. These engines will probably last longer because they are a heavier-duty oil filter system, and there are more fuel filters than we had before,” Moore said. “After 12,000 hours, all we did was change a couple of injectors that went bad.”
The Cross Sound auto ferries can accommodate tourists’ cars and commercial trucks — large and small. The boats regularly have carried fresh Long Island produce to farmers markets and grapes to New England wineries, then gravel for construction contractors on the return trip to New York.
A seafood delivery truck boards the 240-foot car ferry John H. at New London. Cross Sound Ferry’s fleet transports fish and agricultural and quarried goods as well as tourists back and forth between Connecticut and Orient Point, N.Y.
Sea Jet was built in 1989 at Nichols Bros. Boat Builders near Seattle, originally for service to and from California’s Catalina Island. It later operated from Boston to Nantucket, and then returned to Catalina service again before Cross Sound purchased the fast ferry in 1995. The vessel transited the Panama Canal a total of three times as its duties shifted between West Coast and East Coast trade.
As Sea Jet approaches its landing at Orient Point, N.Y., the master retakes the controls from the helmsman. The dock is near the end of a tip of land that faces Block Island Sound to the east in addition to Long Island Sound to its north.
“Orient Point is pretty unique because it’s very exposed,” Spector said. “It’s like a beachhead landing. There’s just a couple of dolphins there. In an easterly wind, you’re basically going to get ocean conditions at the dock.”
Ensuring that his Long Island-bound passengers arrive safely, Spector turns the vessel and inches it astern, taking all precautions until it can be tied up at the berth.
“I back into the dock and the guys get a spring line on,” he said, “and we work in from there with a couple of stern lines just in case something should happen.”
After unloading at Orient Point, the Sea Jet crew prepares to welcome a long queue of New London-bound customers, most of whom plan a day of casino gambling at either Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun. The casinos offer free bus connections from the Thames River ferry terminus.
Shortly after Sea Jet departs Orient Point, the crew encounters one additional problem with operating a ferry on the eastern end of Long Island Sound toward the end of the summer season. The crew apologizes to the passengers for slowing the boat for a few moments. Sea vegetation has accumulated in Sea Jet’s propulsion gear and is inhibiting operation.
A long queue of mostly casino-goers boards Sea Jet.
“Seaweed gets into the impeller and it obstructs the flow. It’s a common end-of-the-year occurrence,” Donovan said. “We simply reverse it and blow it out of there.”
Then Sea Jet is up to cruising speed again, ready for another transit of Plum Gut and The Race.