Memo to the New Staten Island Ferries: Welcome to New York

Thursday, February 10, 2005
By Don Sutherland

How long does it take to build a double-ended municipal ferryboat? Any boat with two bows should have two answers, if not more. If by "build a ferryboat" we mean from the moment we start laying the keel to the moment the boat hits the water, we could say a ferryboat takes eleven months to build. Or anyway, that's how long it took Marinette Marine, Inc., a division of Manitowoc Corporation, to build the first in "the new Kennedy class" - at 310-feet and 7.1 million pounds loaded, with a $40-million price tag, the largest vessel constructed by the yard. Altogether, there are three. "The second two were identical," said Marinette Marine's Duane Roehm, Vice-President, Program Management and Planning, "but during the construction of the first, there was a strike. Once that was settled, and with the Molinari behind us, the Marchi and the Spirit of America were familiar to our people." So they were finished in about eight months apiece. That's pretty good, considering that these were among the largest double-ended ferryboats ever built, and certainly the largest ever ordered for the legendary Staten Island service in New York.

Marinette Marine saves time in their harsh winter climate by building the entire vessel (in this case, except for the top cabin) indoors. They use a modular construction, building and painting assemblies and then putting them together. "We can pick 100-ton modules up and put them in place," Mr. Roehm said. As he describes their technique, the boats started essentially with the main deck, upside-down, from which most of the hull was built - the stiffening spacers, then the bulkheads, then the framing, and so on. "The modular approach is a discriminator for us - we get a higher degree of outfitting done prior to launch. The ferries went in around 80 percent complete." So that's how you build a vessel about the length of a football field in just two-thirds of a year. But these are municipal ferryboats, meaning there are a lot of steps and procedures involved before construction begins - procurement processes and RFPs and the like. There are things to study, such as new propulsion systems, or adaptations and updates of older ones, and new breeds of technology, and new considerations to face in a world in flux, such as security and the price of fuel. There are the wishes and needs of the gents in the engineroom, likewise for those in the wheelhouse. There are the wishes and needs of the riding public, 20,000,000 of them per year, who are the boats' real owners, their customers, their end users. And, being municipal ferryboats in the municipality of New York, there might even be an element of politics. So maybe it takes eleven years to build a double-ended municipal ferryboat. "When I went to work for the City in 1994," said Keith "Jack" Larson, whose positions and titles within the Department of Transportation, after 28 years in the Navy, culminated in Deputy Commissioner, "the original Kennedy-class boats were nearing the end of their planned life. So what we called 'The New Kennedys' were already a plan on paper that year. If I take any credit, it's for coordinating the wide-ranging input from all the stakeholders." To a cynic, the situation might bring to mind the old joke about a camel being a horse designed by a committee. But to the realist, it's a simple fact of history, that varied groups with disparate interests have designed plenty of promising institutions, nations, civilizations. In the case of a municipal ferryboat, it appears they've designed the most commodious, most sensuously pleasing, most efficient vessels in the century since the City took over the operation. That was two dozen ferryboats ago. The first of the trio, now officially known as the Molinari class, is a week away from entering service as this is written. The second is outfitting at Providence, R.I., and the third is awaiting sea trials at Marinette, Wisc. So their performance record is still far ahead - for complete details, see our February, 2040 edition. But having arrived in New York last September, the first, the Guy V. Molinari, has been in constant maneuvers off St. George as her pilots and crew get the hang of her. Not only is she big - a full deck higher than any previous Staten Islander - she has a propulsion and steering system a little unlike anything before. Back to the Future The previous two classes of Staten Islanders, the Barberi class and the Austen class, measuring 300 and 197 ft. overall respectively, and officially accommodating 6,000 and 1,280 passengers, arrived in the early 1980s with Voith Schneider propellers. "The Barberi and the Newhouse [the Barberi's sister] are the largest double-ended ferries with VSP," wrote Voith Schneider Naval Architect Peter Sartori, from Heidenheim, Germany, "so we are proud that our propellers work on these ferries for some decades." While the Alice Austen and John A. Noble would be regulation-size in most locales, they're minis by New York standards. But the Barberis were, until the Molinaris, the biggest Staten Islanders of all time, and "the propellers size 40 GII/240 which are installed on the Barberi class ferries are the biggest Voith Schneider propellers of their time." And in fact, as far as physical dimensions are concerned, "they are still the biggest units. Now we are able to produce smaller but more powerful propellers. The Barberi propellers had an input power of about 2,600 kW. Our most powerful propellers now are designed for an input power of about 4,100 kW." The maneuverability of the VSP ferries has been a hit with the skippers, who over the years have voiced great satisfaction about entering their slips without banging the racks. To the mid-1960s-built Kennedy class and all previous boats on the Whitehall-to-St. George run, the gauntlet of pilings has functioned almost as a landing platform, or funnel to ease the boat into dock after aiming in the general direction. Direct wheelhouse control over diesel-electric power was the technical innovation of the Kennedys, to soften the blow (their predecessors, the Merrill class of the early 1950s, being steamboats). Each generation of vessels has sought better ways to cope with the demanding currents off the Whitehall terminal near the tip of Manhattan. The North and East Rivers converge here, each with a powerful current; it is frequently said - we don't know if it's been demonstrated - that a ferryboat losing power would be spun in circles in the stream. Add Atlantic tides and the celebrated winds off the Battery, and a few thousand commuters who dislike being knocked down, and docking the Staten Island Ferry requires maneuverability indeed. Everything has advanced since the mid-1970s when the Barberis were conceived. Great strides have been made in steering and propulsion systems in general, azimithing pods being an example. And the City would want all options considered. "Pods have their place," said Jack Larson, who retired in 2003 and moved to the west coast, "but also would be large on such big boats, difficult to access in our confinements, so some of their inherent advantages fall by the wayside in our situation. But as you can imagine, there was a very lively discussion about it." The VSPs were part of the discussion too, at a time when the Barberis were still new on the run. "Voith is a very reliable system," said Jim DeSimone, Chief Operating Officer for the ferries, "but when you have the first of a kind and the largest of anything, some teething problems should be anticipated." Reports at the time described the turntable being prone to cracks early-on because of their size (the phenomenon evidently did not appear in the Austen class boats). They could be fixed, but "drydocking was required for repairs." Said Jack Larson, "Any shipyard finds it routine to do a repair to a conventional rudder and propeller." And so, at a time when the VSPs were still being proved, a rudder and screw propeller was chosen for the new design. A New Twist Not only propulsion systems, but control systems have undergone steady evolution since the days of bell boats and telegraph systems between the wheelhouse and engineroom. The Kennedys introduced wheelhouse control, but left the pilot to steer with just one of his two rudders. One of the last sounds heard before each departure of a Kennedy-class boat, and all their forebears back to 1905, is the ringing, resonating clank of a thick pin dropping into the forward rudder, fixing its alignment dead center. Helping keep it there on the Kennedy boats is a double ram system, lest choppy waters, ice, flotsam, or any other influence cause the forward rudder to flop around underway. Such an event would contribute nothing to maneuverability. Replacing the ram system on the Molinaris is a hydraulic vane pump system, a lighter and more compact configuration that permits the rudder to turn to a greater angle - 90 degrees from center. "The vane system seems to perform more quickly as well," said Sean McDermott, Chief Engineer and Project Manager for the new boats. More to the point from the standpoint of maneuvering, the wheelhouse control system, whose design was overseen by ASI Rubicon, gives the pilot control over both the forward and aft rudders at the same time. Dual-rudder control from a single station has its precedents in New York, having appeared in some of the Governor's Island ferries. However, in the words of Jack Larson, "We stole it fair and square from the Washington State ferries" which, unlike the Governor's Island boats, are quite massive.

Stole? Well, maybe the designers found inspiration in Washington, which runs double-enders across routes even longer, and in less of a straight line, than the Staten Island run. And perhaps Washington State has returned the compliment. "We've used single-house control for both rudders for quite some time," said Capt. Kelly Mitchell, senior port captain for the Washington State operation, "but we've had some steering problems with the double ram system. Our consulting engineer and construction master went to visit the Staten Island ferries, and we'll probably be incorporating a vane system in our next boats, four double-enders which we expect in 2007 or 2008." Those boats, Capt. Mitchell tells us, will have a life expectancy of 60 years. But besides being inspired by, borrowing, or stealing Washington State's dual rudder control, the Molinari class goes one better. It gives the pilot control over the individual propellers as well - both speed and direction "The boats have three turbocharged 16-cylinder, 4,000 hp EMD 710s," Sean McDermott tells us, "two being used in normal service and the third for backup. The EMDs drive Baylor 4160 generators," which, through a series of switch gears, transformers, rectifiers and related equipment, power the 17Hz AC propulsion motors, each developing 2500 hp. "It's a radical change, going to AC. It greatly improves maneuverability and performance." Should the pilot need extra power in maneuvering, he can demand a 10 percent overload (500 hp) for 20 minutes, for a total of 5,500 hp. Able to turn the rudders hard over at both ends, the skipper can generate sideways thrust; able to control the propellers individually, he can temper that thrust to position the boat at a desired angle. The boats are able to walk sideways, and align themselves for a favorable approach past the racks and up to the dock. The two throttles can be tied together for normal service, and separated for close maneuvering - both forward, both aft, or one of each. In principle, the controls are comparable to those for standard twin-screw vessels whose rudders and propellers are aft, except in this case they're at two ends of the hull. How maneuverable does this make the Molinaris? This, again, remains to be proven through experience. But asked, "If the Kennedy's are zero and the Barberis are ten, where do the Molinaris stand in terms of maneuverability," those who should know replied in the range of six to eight. "We did a lot of work trying to figure out how much side thrust we could get," said Jack Larson, "and I think she will spin on her axis."

The Molinaris on Another Level Ferryboats are often characterized as fat, waddling, and ungainly, an impression easily conveyed by their upper works. For well over a century, their main decks and the cabins above have typically extended far outside their hulls, the better to accommodate cargo. And they are freighters, although seldom described as such, but the loads they carry cannot be stacked too tightly, and may insist upon breathing room, elbow room. Passenger ships are those on which people sleep, lounge, pass time; on ferries, they wait to get off. The apparent girth of their superstructure aspires to resolve conflicting demands of practicality and esthetics, in an age when practicality reigns. It's only the privileged who see the ferry's true nature; not as a stack of houses designed to keep the cargo at its designated temperature, but as naval architecture and marine engineering, a form designed for motion. In general these are the shipyard workers, who in the case of the Molinaris assembled a structure of grace and beauty. To an eye accustomed to the hard chines of other modern craft, the Molinaris' hulls are a surprise and a treat for their rounded lines and flowing contours. They have two propellers, but are single-screw hulls, with the grace of their tapers on both ends. Where the requirements of the upper works produce a flat-sided block, the requirements of the bottom produce sculpture. But it was all in homage to practicality. The boats have a 30-minute schedule on a 25 minute run, during which a couple thousand pedestrians may board, bide their time, then rush off to their appointments. The broad doorways and aisles help see to that goal. Meanwhile, it's more than five miles from Point A to B on the Molinaris' route, and the boats bustle along at some 18 miles per hour. Can they do so without rocking the barges they pass? For the most part they have in the Staten Island service, but their hulls must be designed with that in mind. The Molinaris' success on this score will be rendered by, among others, the crews of the next 35 years of tugboats. If they are good harbor neighbors, able to refrain from swamping sailboats, their owners, the riders, will surely approve. But it will be with a shrug, for these riders almost by definition are landlubbers, whose most pressing concerns are upland. One of them centers on the tax office, where the price of ferry operations is collected. On a municipal transit system that charges no fare, this is where the public pays for the ride, and they'd like it to be as little as possible. "We wanted to get the speed, but we also wanted fuel efficiency," said Allen Chin of the design firm of George G. Sharp, Inc., an objective even more important for the world these boats sail into than the one for which they were planned. Where hard-edged hulls are said to gain speed through brute power, and make a bit of a wave, "sleek lines give less resistance. We purposely did it because we didn't want to waste fuel." Looking at the Molinaris alongside the Barberis, it's hard to believe they come from the same designers. Could two municipal ferryboats be more the opposite? The Barberis, known widely within ferry circles, and somewhat disparagingly, as the "buses," are completely flat sided, with no exterior deck for their riders' diversion. The open platforms at each end are merely concessions to the fact that the cabins must end somewhere. The Molinaris, by contrast, have the most open deckspace in the history of the run - the first to offer outdoor observation on three decks at each end, plus a broad open swath on the Promenade deck, three levels above the water. To top it all off, the Hurricane deck, the uppermost, the one with the wheelhouses upon it, for the first time has a passenger cabin too - and was designed with the idea that ferryboat riders enjoy not only the wind in their faces and the water below, but the stars overhead as well. If this study in opposites suggests anything, it's that professional, disciplined designers know how to interpret their mandates, and execute their instructions. Old-timers recall that the Barberis were funded, in part, by Federal grants intended to promote mass transit. For that reason, they're the first boats in the system without vehicle accommodations. This doubles their cargo capacity - from an official 3000 riders aboard the Kennedys to 6000 on the Barberis - but while we're being practical, why stop there? The boats run all year, and New York gets chilly in winter. Only a few fresh-air lovers would congregate outside at that time, even fewer during storms, and mass transit cannot consider the few; it considers the masses. If the camel is a horse designed by committee, the Barberis are ferryboats designed by grant applications. The planners of the Molinari class wondered, if besides the usual sources, the new boats should be designed by their users. "I had written a piece for the arts council newsletter," recounts Tamara Coombs, a member of the St. George Civic Association who holds a degree in architecture, "about the fact that the quality of a ride on a Staten Island ferry was largely determined before the boat ever left the boatyard, that it was mostly a matter of design. Because of that piece, I was asked to help form a ferry committee," which became known as the Ferry Riders Committee. " I became the chair and have been so almost ever since (another member chaired for a couple of years). " The first task undertaken by the Committee was to persuade the Department of Transportation to allocate funds for air-conditioning of the St. George ferry terminal, then proposed for renovation (and now nearly completed). New York may be bitter in the winter, but it swelters in the summer. Despite this, air-conditioning was not budgeted into the rebuilding plans until the Ferry Riders Committee collected a thousand signatures on a petition. From this experience, Ms. Coombs concluded that "within the bureaucracy of DOT there were civic-minded individuals who wanted to do the right thing, but needed the support of the public." Added Jack Larson, about a time when the design considerations of the proposed ferries - not even "the New Kennedys yet" - were first being aired, "I was very concerned that we were bringing the project to the public far too late, that people would think our plans were set in concrete." In a sense, it's an oddity that a committee of the St. George Civic Association would become the liaison between "the people" and "the city." While always having its influence upon public matters - St. George is Staten Island's "downtown," its "capitol" - the Civic Association has neither the semi-governmental authority of the local Community Board, nor the quasi-legal stature of the Local Development Corporations that sprouted around Staten Island in the eighties. It is almost an oddity that a thousand signatures - out of the 70,000 riders of the ferry each day - would be taken as representing the commonweal. Nevertheless, "In our committee meetings and discussions at the larger civic meetings, it became apparent that most regular riders preferred the Kennedy class boats. We did not want new boats to be modeled after the Barberi class in terms of outside space, seating, window operation (padlocked according to calendar, not weather), etc. We decided to conduct an informal survey to find out how other ferry riders felt, in hopes that ferry riders' opinions would be taken into account." The "informal survey" yielded "about 325 completed forms out of 400 we passed out. We then wrote up a 19 page report, with lots of quotes." In a town as complex and convoluted as New York, it's not always so clear when push produces shove. "I don't really know how large a role the survey/report played in terms of the decision for 'old style' boats. I think it was important," Ms. Coombs recalls. "At the least, we got a discussion going about design. Although DOT may not have been aware of how strongly ferry riders felt about the design of the boats, I believe it is likely that the report provided support for some within DOT who wanted the return of certain Kennedy class features." Said Jack Larson, "People expressed their opinions. I think there's a strong contingent who would like to perambulate around the boat. The question came up, can we bring people up there to the Hurricane deck? I think it was a real coup to be able to pull that off. "

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