West Coast Ferry Industry at All-Time High

Tuesday, September 07, 1999
In terms of new deliveries, the West Coast ferry industry will probably not see another period to match the past 18 months for some time. All three of the large government-operated ferry systems in the Pacific Northwest - Washington State, BC Ferries and the Alaska Marine Highway System - received new tonnage, as did a number of smaller operators along the coast. Still under construction are two high-speed vehicle-carrying catamarans for BC Ferries and a single passenger-only high-speed cat for Washington State. In addition, the Nichols Bros. yard at Freeland, Wash. is completing a 40-knot catamaran for operation between southern California and Catalina Island, and a second 35-knot cat for deployment in Alaska by the Brad Phillips organization. The West Coast ferry building boom was kicked off in June of 1997 by the delivery of the first of three Jumbo Mk II double-enders, Tacoma, to Washington State Ferries by Todd Pacific Shipyard. Even before this event, two fast passenger-only craft had been delivered to the City of Vallejo by Dakota Creek Industries at Anacortes, Wash. These latter two vessels, Intintoli and Mare Island, have since been followed by an additional two Dakota Creek-built boats, Chinook, which has been placed in operation by Washington State Ferries on Puget Sound, and Del Norte, delivered to California's Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District (GGBHTD) for employment on San Francisco Bay after repair of impeller damage suffered in June of last year. Last June also saw the delivery of the second Washington State Jumbo Mk II, Wenatchee, and the launch of the third, Puyallup. North of the border, the first of BC Ferry's fast vehicle-carrying PacifiCat catamarans was floated out to begin its sea trials in September while assembly moved forward on the second and third hulls. At the same time, the Alaska Marine Highways System was looking over its new ferry, Kennicott, after the ship's delivery voyage from the Gulf where it was completed by Halter Marine. Unfortunately, not all of these projects have been trouble-free, illustrating that ferry construction may not be a profitable undertaking for the yards involved. Washington State Ferries was somewhat shocked to receive a letter from Todd Pacific Shipyard last May notifying it that change-order work on the three new Jumbos', plus additional engineering work, would total up to $48.7 million. The costs, which Todd said covered some 200 to 300 change orders, included $27.5 million on Tacoma, delivered five months late, $11.3 million on Wenatchee, which entered service three months late, and $3.6 million on Puyallup, handed over two months early. Todd is also billing the ferry system $6.3 million for additional engineering costs. The shipbuilder won the $181 million contract to build the three ferries by significantly underbidding its competition in 1995, and even coming in under the construction price estimated by Washington State engineers. It is now forecasting a substantial loss on the ferry project, especially if the change order work cannot be covered. Several "bugs" were uncovered in the new ships during their first months of service. Tacoma suffered a control system breakdown, which required the replacement of its shaft encoders while Wenatchee encountered communications problems between its motor-control computers, a fault traced to faulty wire plugs. The new Tacoma class are 20 ft. longer and three ft. wider then their predecessors, and their displacement has been increased from 4,470 tons to 5,398 tons, giving a passenger capacity of 2,500 - 500 more than the first generation jumbos - but a vehicle capacity of only 13 more units. To the north, BC Ferries is currently testing the first of its catamaran-hulled PacifiCats and hopes to place the vessel in service between the Canadian mainland and Vancouver Island within the next few weeks. To date, the high-speed ferry construction program, being managed by BC Ferries' subsidiary Catamaran Ferries International (CFI), has been dogged by a tardy construction schedule, which CFI officials have blamed on a longer-than-anticipated learning curve regarding aluminum alloy construction. In addition, the original price for the first vessel has escalated from $45.9 million to $56.3 million. The new PacifiCat achieved 37 knots on trials carrying 300 metric tons of water ballast load but burnt out the cylinder liners on all four MTU 20V-1163 TB73L engines accomplishing this feat. Once the liners are replaced the PacifiCat is expected to shorten the run between Vancouver Island and the Canadian mainland by about 30 minutes. Besides the vehicle-carrying fast ferries, BC Ferries has been studying the authorization of a separate passenger-only fast-ferry service that would operate between downtown Vancouver and Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island. A joint venture put together by Hong Kong's Far East Hydrofoil Co. Ltd. and Seattle's Clipper Navigation has proposed operating two 240-passenger Boeing 929 Jetfoils on this route, but the BC government has since backed away from putting the service into operation this year because of the ferry corporation's current financial position. Nevertheless, Darrell Bryan, manager of Seattle-based Clipper Navigation, says ridership on the proposed high-speed route could go as high as 600,000 per year. Bryan said Clipper currently carries about 400,000 passengers a year between Seattle and Vancouver Island using its fleet of fast, passenger-only catamarans and a single auto/passenger ferry. Two previous high-speed services between Vancouver and Victoria have failed, one in 1986 using Boeing Jetfoils and one in 1992/93 using Kvaerner Fjellstrand-supplied catamarans. Bryan said the key to the success of the proposed JetFoil service would be putting the vessels in at Swartz Bay rather than Victoria as the latter's approach is open to heavy seas during the winter months while Swartz Bay is protected year-around. In Alaskan waters, new Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) ferry Kennicott has entered service after being handed over by Halter Marine's Moss Point yard. The multipurpose RoRo vessel was originally to have been delivered at Juneau, Alaska on May 1 but didn't enter commercial service until July 7 because of technical delays. It also had to be retrofitted with a second safety exit on one of the decks, something overlooked in the original inspection process. Kennicott is configured to accommodate 500 passengers on ocean voyages and 748 on short international voyages in 109 cabins holding 314 berths. Vehicle capacity is 120 cars or 20 45-ft. vans and 39 cars. The ship is powered by Wärtsilä Vasa 32E's diesels - one main engine per propeller shaft - with a total geared output of 8,800 kW giving a service speed of about 15.5 knots. It has taken over the ferry system's Southwest service, replacing an older ship that has been put into day service. In the passenger-only realm, Dakota Creek has delivered four new high-speed ferries of Australian design and has a fifth under construction while Nichols Bros at Freeland expects to turn over a new boat for the Southern California-Catalina Island run shortly and is building another for Alaska. The first vessel was ordered by Long Beach-based Catalina Cruises and is an Incat-designed 141-ft. catamaran featuring airline-type seating for 450-passengers. Propulsion is provided by four electronically-controlled 3512B Caterpillar diesel engines generating 7,800 combined hp driving MJP-waterjets for a loaded speed of 40 knots. A special ride control system for the boat has been developed by Maritime Dynamics and features aft trim tabs and electronically-controlled "T-Foils" fitted beneath each bow. According to Catalina Cruises, the fast cat should be able to make the run between Long Beach and Avalon in less than an hour without excessive vibration or sea motion. The Dakota Creek-built ferries are also of Australian design, have been drawn up by Advanced Multi-hull Designs (AMD), and include Intintoli and Mare Island for the City of Vallejo, Chinook for Washington State, and Del Norte, delivered to California's Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District. Intintoli and Mare Island employ twin MTU diesels driving waterjets while Chinook and Del Norte use a four-engine Detroit Diesel 16V149 DDEC propulsion package. Washington State has since ordered a second ferry similar to Chinook for delivery this year. The state ferry system has indicated it would like to build a large fleet of high-speed boats for commuter work, as well as a fourth Tacoma-class, but funding remains a question mark. Likewise, BC Ferries has run up a tremendous debt and may see portions of its ferry operation eventually turned over the private sector. The Corporation still has several large monohull ferries on its shopping list as part of a ten-year fleet renewal program, but it must first get its PacifiCat program in order. The State of Alaska appears satisfied with its trunk line capacity at present but is studying the idea of smaller high-speed vessels for some of its shorter runs. In San Francisco Bay, several proposals are being examined to put more commuters on the water. Last year the California State legislature directed the Bay Area Council and the Bay Area Economic Forum to form a Blue Ribbon Task Force to undertake a study of high-speed transportation. This study is examining the possible use of catamarans, hydrofoils, jet foils and hovercraft to reduce travel time in the Bay area and provide an alternative to highway transportation. The study is looking at potential routes and terminus points as well as ferry frequency. Berkeley-based Pacific Transit Management Corporation has already suggested the use of hovercraft vehicles for a proposed route between downtown San Francisco and the San Francisco International Airport. The hovercraft was chosen primarily because it can offer direct transit to the airport terminals by crossing the runways. The specific design being considered is the Westland AP1-88-400, two of which have been built by Hike Industries of Wheatley, Ont. for use by the Canadian Coast Guard. The Canadian hovercraft are an improved version of the original Westland AP1-88 design, being longer, wider and faster. Power is provided by four Caterpillar 3412s generating 3,840 hp for a speed of about 50 knots (62.5 mph). In commercial configuration, these craft would be able to transport about 130 passengers and cost around $6.5 million each. According to their designers, they would be able to operate in 35 knot winds (gusting to 40 knots) and in seas with 4.9 ft. waves (7.9 ft. waves maximum). Hovercraft have been used successfully to serve airports at Brisbane, Australia and Copenhagen, Denmark but if chosen for the San Francisco project, would have to be built in the a U.S. yard under special license.-J.L. Shaw
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