Weekend warriors and fog keep Block Island ferry crews on their toes

The Interstate Navigation Co. ferry was halfway between Block Island and the Rhode Island coast when a Boston Whaler whizzed past for the first time.

The high-speed ferry Athena maneuvers in Old Harbor on Block Island. (Casey Conley photo)

A few minutes later, it was back again. The same 18-foot vessel that moments before had overtaken the 208-foot car ferry Block Island was now idling just ahead on our port side, with two adults and three waving children on board.

Capt. Jim Chase kept an eye on the craft as he steered the ferry straight ahead at about 16 knots. He was not entirely thrilled about the presence of the small boat.

"I'd like him to either pass us and go, or stop somewhere and wait for me, but he seems to want to pass and stop on our track," he said. "It's quite annoying."

Capt. Jim Chase steers Block Island into Point Judith as outbound Athena passes to port. (Casey Conley photo)

Block Island is accessible by ferry in the summer months from Montauk, N.Y., New London, Conn., and Newport, R.I., but Interstate's run from Point Judith, R.I., is the only one that operates all year. During the high season, Interstate operates 14 round trips per day between Block Island and Point Judith on weekdays and 16 on weekends. The company also operates a daily round trip from Newport to Block Island during the summer.

Interstate owns six vessels, but most riders take either Block Island, a traditional car ferry, or Athena, a 250-passenger high-speed catamaran ferry that carries passengers only.

On a fall morning, the line of passengers waiting to board the 99-foot Athena extended several hundred feet around the ticket offices and onto a sidewalk that bordered the main road in Point Judith. The tourist traffic usually dies down by October, but a fall heat wave had engulfed New England in 90° heat. On this Columbus Day weekend, many of the passengers carried day packs, bicycles and beach gear.

Capt. John Parker welcomed the 249 passengers on board for the roughly 30-minute voyage and had the vessel ready to depart on time. With lookouts at the bow and stern, he reversed from the pier and turned south toward open water, recently built beach houses, decades-old fishing trawlers and a packed beach.

Passengers enjoy the unseasonably warm October sun during a return trip to the mainland aboard the 208-foot conventional car ferry Block Island. (Casey Conley photo)

Once clear of the breakerwaters, Parker throttled up on the four 1,100-hp Caterpillar marine diesel engines that power Hamilton Waterjets. The vessel hummed to life, accelerating to 28 knots in less than a minute. Assisting Parker in the wheelhouse were First Mate Mark Chute and Chris Myers, Interstate's vessel operations manager. Engineer Eric Russo monitored the engines and mechanical equipment.

From the windows, passengers could see the fishing villages of Galilee and Jerusalem slowly receding behind them. On the port side sat Point Judith Light, a 51-foot brown and white lighthouse that's warned passing mariners since 1857.

Block Island is 13 miles off the Rhode Island coast. The island has about 1,000 year-round residents, but its population triples on summer weekends. During the warmer months, thousands of powerboats, sailboats and personal watercraft are on the water in Rhode Island Sound, an area off the Southern New England coast that’s home to prominent sailing races and a busy east-west shipping lane.

Unlike in Casco Bay or Boston Harbor, there are few natural or man-made obstacles in the waters around Block Island, for Parker and other ferry captains to navigate around. Entry channels on both ends of the voyage are plenty wide and deep, while the approaches themselves require little maneuvering. Parker said there was "good water" — with depths of up to 150 feet — throughout the route.

Christian Myers, Interstate Navigation's operations manager, describes features of the route. Block Island First Mate Jacob Fonseca is visible to the rear. (Casey Conley photo)

Even so, the route is no picnic. Rhode Island Sound gets extremely congested during the summer with recreational boaters, fishermen, freighters and barge traffic. This section of Rhode Island Sound is notorious for its thick springtime fog that arrives most mornings and tends to stick around past noon.

"I've had trips myself coming into Old Harbor where you can't see the breakwater as you are going past it, and then you are coming in and once you clear the breakwater, you are looking for the pier on the radar, and sooner or later it pops out," Myers said. "That's the worst case scenario."

Two John Deere 4045 diesel engines provide the backup power to Athena, which was built in 2001 by Gladding-Hearn Shipbuilding. The ship is equipped with state-of-the-art navigation tools, including two Furuno LCD radar displays, GPS and AIS systems. All components are ARPA-equipped, and linked together with an IBM ThinkPad laptop computer.

Parker, who teaches naval officers to operate water-jet-driven craft at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, has driven Athena since it was built in 2001. He says the vessel is one of a kind.

Athena's Capt. John Parker at the helm of the waterjet-driven craft. To his right is First Mate Mark Chute. (Casey Conley photo)

"I have been on this thing for a long, long time," said Parker, who holds an unlimited third mate's license. "In my humble opinion, this boat is probably one of the nicest high-speed crafts on the East Coast. With the navigation suite, the propulsion package, the hull form, capacity. It's just really nice."

Electronic monitors in the wheelhouse provide the captain and engineer with real-time updates on the vessel's engines and mechanical systems. Interstate bought Athena in 2006 from another ferry company that no longer serves Point Judith. One of the boat's most notable traits is its ability to stay relatively smooth even in trying seas.

"This has a very good active ride control system." Parker said. "We have two giant, big trim tabs that are smoothing out the ride for you right now, so it makes a very nice trip over in any kind of sea, up to five, six feet. It still takes the edge off. You're still going to feel the ride, but it takes most of those seas out of play."

Nearly 20 minutes into the voyage, the ferry passed the northern tip of Block Island, past scattered beach houses and steep cliffs that drop into the ocean. The terrain smoothed out to a lush green upland and golden sandy beaches as we continued south.

Engineer Eric Russo in Athena's engine room next to one of the four 1,100-hp Caterpillar 3412E engines. (Casey Conley photo)

Old Harbor on Block Island is protected on its west side by an L-shaped jetty, and to the east by a straight stone and sand jetty that extends nearly a quarter-mile from shore. Parker powered down as the vessel approached the jetties and moved to a starboard control station for the final leg. Moments later, he eased the vessel into the pier. The journey took just under 32 minutes.

While exiting the vessel, Myers pointed out a plaque commemorating Athena's role in the "Miracle on the Hudson” airplane rescue on Jan. 15, 2009. Crew from Athena pulled 19 passengers from the river, including the now-famous pilot, Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger, who was the last to exit the Airbus A320 aircraft.

Unlike Block Island, which operates year-round, Athena runs between late May and early October, when demand for the high-speed ferry is highest. In the off-season, Interstate leases it to NY Waterway, which operates the vessel in New York Harbor as a reserve for its own fleet.

"The Athena was actually tied to the dock in Weehawken (N.J.) on its midday layover period between morning and afternoon rush-hour commuter trips when U.S. Airways Flight 1549 landed on the Hudson River," Myers said.

The real workhorse of the fleet, however, is Block Island, which can carry up to 1,000 passengers and 35 vehicles, including semi-trucks, delivery vans and several tons of palletized freight. Block Island was already docked in Old Harbor when Athena pulled up to an adjacent berth.

After a few minutes on shore, Myers led us aboard the ferry Block Island, pointing out the vessel's fully-stocked snack bar, the crew's quarters and other features. Walking toward the wheelhouse, we passed cafe-style tables and dozens of chairs on the main passenger deck. A few tables were occupied, but most passengers had congregated on the outside decks to soak up the summer-like sun.

Chase eased Block Island off the pier as we made our way toward the bridge. In the ferry's wood-paneled wheelhouse, he was surrounded by the same radar and navigation aids as on Athena. Chase was joined by First Mate Jacob Fonseca, while Engineer Gregg Provost was posted under the car deck in the engine room. Four deck hands were aboard.

Built in 1997, Block Island is powered by two EMD L8-710 diesel engines that provide up to 2,000 hp to two conventional propellers. Two John Deere 6068 TFM marine engines power Marathon generators, and a 6V-1N Detroit Diesel engine powers a Lima emergency generator. The vessel also has a Detroit Diesel 8V-71N engine capable of 230 hp that powers a Schottel bow thruster.

The vessel is considered nimble for its size, even in bad conditions. "This is a very good poor-weather boat," Chase said, adding that its length, low profile and closed hull allow it to operate in conditions Athena can't.

Now in the early afternoon, there were many more boats visible than on the ride over. A roughly 20-foot powerboat passed the ferry to the port side, closer than most, giving the crew a wave as he went past. It was a local saying hello, Myers said.

The onboard electronics have made it easier for Chase and other captains to keep an eye on nearby vessels. The ARPA system's tracking options show bearing and speed of an approaching vessel, while the AIS helps the crew identify and contact by name other AIS-equipped vessels.

"If I was concerned that we might be meeting, I could acquire them, and this will give me some information: its name, its bearing, its range, closest point of approach," he said.

The AIS technology gives crew "a whole new dimension," Myers said. "It's just another tool, and since last year, we have it on every boat."

Radio chatter suggested other vessels were noticing congestion on the water. "I got a 45-foot (expletive) that just went by me," said one mariner.

Minutes later, a boater hurled a curse at another vessel over the radio.

"How about your language, weekend warrior," barked another.

"It's like the last hurrah out here," said Chase, who has worked for Interstate for 10 years.

Still, most vessels were giving the ferry plenty of space.

"On a nice day like today, we keep a pretty straight course. We don't have to tack into seas or anything like that," Chase said. "So without even communicating verbally with other boats on the radio, they know what we are doing. We are telling them what we are doing by keeping a straight course. It's what the stand-on vessel does, and we are the stand-on vessel with most recreational boats," he said.

Moments later, the Boston Whaler reappeared, coming and going while the ferry made its way toward shore. At 16.5 knots, it takes the ferry about 55 minutes to reach Point Judith.

"There's that guy passing you again, Jim," Myers said.

"Yeah, he's having a good time," Chase said.

Moments later, the powerboat sped past for the last time, making S-turns in and out of the ferry's path for a few hundred yards before turning east toward Narragansett Bay.

"There are a lot of (recreational boats) out here in the summer, or on a holiday weekend," said Chase. "It's just something you have to be tolerant and respectful with."

"There are people that like to follow us on a rough day. You'll have small boats or fishermen that will ride in our wake and they will follow us, but rarely will they pass us, then have us pass them again. It doesn't usually happen," he added.

Soon Block Island was passing Point Judith Light and entering the breakerwaters. The trip was nearly over. Two people on personal watercraft zipped around inside the breakerwaters as the ferry continued north toward Point Judith Pond.

With the pier in sight and the vessel set for a stern-first approach, Chase left the wheelhouse and walked to a stern-mounted control station.

Perched more than 30-feet above the water, Chase guided the vessel past fishing trawlers and other Interstate ferries that weren't in use. Once the vessel was lined up with the dock, he powered down and guided it in for a perfect landing.

By Professional Mariner Staff