The fast ferry Seastreak Commodore, resplendent in early morning light, appeared on the East River like the intro to a Hollywood movie. Once the 600-passenger catamaran was moored at Manhattan’s East 35th Street public dock, a steady stream of New Jersey commuters disembarked, rested and ready to fight Gotham’s daily battles.
For the return run to Highlands, N.J., Capt. Pat Welch headed the vessel down the East River, under the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges, and past Governors Island and the shining Statue of Liberty. Welch next made the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, crossed Lower Bay and slowed Commodore to the dock at Highlands, a calm refuge in the throat of Sandy Hook, a short distance from Seastreak LLC’s headquarters and terminal at Atlantic Highlands, N.J.
The threshold for comfort, size, speed and planet-pleasing machines is a much-crossed boundary — airplanes, computers, cars, boats, you name it. As the highest-passenger-capacity U.S. Coast Guard Subchapter K fast ferry in the United States, Commodore raised the bar again in May when the operator took delivery from Gulf Craft of Franklin, La. Australia-based Incat Crowther designed the 150-by-40-foot catamaran.
Another threshold — passenger demand — was pinching capacity within Seastreak’s fleet due to growth since Jim Barker, the president, acquired the company in 2008. The success presented a problem, albeit more welcome than the alternative. The solution involved Commodore and extensive upgrades to three Seastreak-class vessels, New York, New Jersey and Highlands, at a total cost in excess of $24 million. Seastreak also elected to improve its Web presence and implemented the Bookit reservation, ticketing and check-in system from Sweden’s Hogia Ferry Systems.
Capt. Pat Welch confers with Capt. Don Babbitt on the bridge as Seastreak Commodore closes in on the spires of Lower Manhattan.
Barker explained that the company had achieved 5 percent growth in the commuter market for five successive years. “In 2016, we hit the million mark by the end of December. Last year, it was a month earlier. That’s why we need the new boat and the upgrades to our fleet and booking system,” he said.
Seastreak is a family affair. Barker is the eldest son of James R. Barker, who began his career as a marine consultant in 1971. He rose to head Moore-McCormack Lines, a major coffee carrier, becoming the youngest CEO of a major U.S. corporation. He left that position in 1987 when he acquired Interlake Steamship Co. Jim’s younger brother Mark is now president of Interlake.
The origin of the present-day Seastreak traces back to Holyman, a global fast-ferry operator that collapsed in 1997. Sea Containers bought Express Navigation, a Holyman orphan, and renamed the company Seastreak. Bankruptcy struck Sea Containers in 2006. After acquiring the company, Jim Barker, who had founded New England Fast Ferries (NEFF) in 2003, combined the two entities under the Seastreak banner. The patriarch, James R. Barker, acting as chairman, is still very active in running the family’s companies.
Seastreak’s New York-New Jersey fleet consists of Seastreak Highlands, Wall Street, New Jersey, New York and Commodore. Other than Commodore, they are all 141-foot, 500-passenger catamarans, also designed by Incat Crowther but built by Gladding-Hearn Shipbuilding of Somerset, Mass. Commodore is the first in the Commodore class of high-speed luxury ferries.
Passengers who boarded in New Jersey relax in the lounge as the fast ferry heads to New York City. Amenities include a saloon bar, flat-screen TVs and Wi-Fi.
The company also operates Ocean State, a 65-foot, 149-passenger catamaran built at Merrifield-Roberts in Bristol, R.I., which handles the seasonal Providence-to-Newport route. Martha’s Vineyard Express and Whaling City Express, both 95-foot, 149-passenger catamarans built by Derecktor Shipyards of Mamaroneck, N.Y., run between New Jersey and New York during the winter and connect New Bedford, Mass., with Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard during the summer. Commodore also takes on offshore runs from New Jersey and New York to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket on weekends during the high season.
On the commuter runs, Seastreak operates up to 14 daily round trips, year-round, from Highlands and Atlantic Highlands to the towers of Manhattan’s financial district that crowd Pier 11/Wall Street and the East 35th Street public berth. The million-plus passengers per year are largely business professionals living in New Jersey. A ticket for the 22-mile run to New York costs more than the bus, train or going by car, but the alternatives have disadvantages and add-on fees.
For example, it is 50 miles each way by road, with tolls, traffic, wear and tear on the vehicle, parking and anxiety with which to contend. The commute by ferry, at 35 knots, cuts the average round-trip time by 75 minutes, offering comfortable seating, a saloon bar, spectacular views and anxiety’s enemy, relaxation — not to mention a combined 16 acres of free parking at the New Jersey terminals.
A round trip on the Seastreak commuter route is $46, with a one-way ticket costing $27. A book of 40 one-way tickets is $675, equivalent to a month’s travel at less than $34 per day. It is the company’s most popular package.
The passenger amenities aboard Commodore are top shelf, beginning with 520 Beurteaux seats in the interior passenger lounges. The Australia-based company also provided 206 exterior seats on the second and third decks.
The interior lounges have heating, ventilation and air conditioning provided by a Daikin VRV IV heat pump system. DAMPA of Denmark supplied the white ceiling and wall panels, perforated and backed with felt to squelch noise. The interior is softly lit by window light and Imtra dimmable LED units.
The ferry passes under the Brooklyn Bridge en route to the East 35th Street terminal after dropping the majority of its passengers at Wall Street. The vessel’s second and third decks are outfitted with exterior seating for more than 200.
A saloon bar, flat-screen TVs and Wi-Fi are available as alternatives to the views through a host of generous ProCurve windows tinted to 27 percent for a low solar load. All of Commodore’s forward-facing windows are safety-laminated and hurricane-proof.
“There was a high level of focus on the interior layout and fit-out of the vessel to ensure it would provide a steep change to any vessel operating in the region (or) nation,” said Stewart Wells, technical manager at Incat Crowther’s office in Lafayette, La.
On the bridge during the morning run back to New Jersey, Welch gestured to the forward electronics and said, “We have a lot of information in front of us on the console. And there are extensive safety aspects built in.” The priority at Seastreak was to exceed regulatory requirements and get the best equipment on the market to ensure the safety of the passengers and crew.
Wells explained that the bridge arrangement was designed in partnership with Seastreak. “It features excellent visibility of the forward boarding area, and the racked side windows on the wing stations allow the skipper to view the full length of the vessel when side docking,” he said.
The operative word is fast: Seastreak Commodore’s quad Rolls-Royce engines and waterjets give the luxury ferry a 35-knot service speed.
Wells added that the speed and efficiency of the catamaran is achieved by the long slender hull forms featuring plumb bows that extend the waterline length and buoyancy. Incat Crowther has refined catamaran platforms with more than 500 deliveries in the past 35 years.
GMT Electronics of South River, N.J., supplied the bridge electronics and navigation system, primarily consisting of Furuno and Simrad equipment. The heated wheelhouse windows are equipped with Window Wiper Technologies’ wipers and spray nozzles.
Rolls-Royce supplied the four high-speed MTU 12V 4000 M64 diesel main engines, staggered fore and aft in each pontoon. The engines are coupled to Reintjes WVS 730 diagonal offset gears with a 1.929:1 reduction ratio, driving Rolls-Royce Kamewa 63S4 waterjets. The engines have resilient mounts to reduce the vibration transfer to the vessel.
The quad jet arrangement improves Commodore’s slow-speed maneuverability and operational redundancy. A Humphree Active Ride Control system contributes to the vessel’s smooth sailing.
“The jet package and the control aspect of the boat are very impressive,” Welch said. “The boat tracks very well because of the aft length. And it takes the sea very well because of the length-to-width ratio.”
With one leg down on its commuter run, the boat turns from New York City and heads back to New Jersey. On summer weekends, the ferry makes offshore transits to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
Gulf Craft, also a family affair, has a number of Incat Crowther-designed vessels in its portfolio and worked closely with Seastreak on Commodore. “There was nothing unusual about the build process,” said Scotty Tibbs II, Gulf Craft’s vice president and chief financial officer. ”It is part of the process we have been doing since 1965 when my father founded the business. It was another awesome experience for two family-run businesses to work together with the ultimate goal of building a world-class passenger vessel.”
Wells added that Commodore is a custom design solution specific to Seastreak’s needs. It is the only vessel of its design currently in operation.
“We designed and built Seastreak Commodore with a combination of the best technologies, systems and materials available to create the largest and most comfortable high-speed ferry in the United States,” Jim Barker said. “She was built both for New York City commuter runs and for the open ocean, and she performs exceptionally well in both applications.”
It is indeed an impressive vessel. The question is, how long before the passenger load breaches Seastreak’s capacity threshold again?