FERRIES/EXCURSION - COVID-19 threatens once-robust passenger vessel market
Professional Mariner|Annual American Ship Review 2021
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.
Casey Conley

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.

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.

FERRIES

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.

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