Feature: Passenger Vessels : What's in Store in 2004?

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

By Larry Pearson

The passenger vessel market is a classic mature marine market. Segments of it are doing well, while other parts have literally died. For example, the overnight segment of the market saw one substantial vessel delivered in 2003 with none on the horizon for 2004.

Overnight Vessels

The Empress of the North, a 360-ft. sternwheeler was put into service in September working the West Coast-Alaska route. Now that ice is a problem in Alaska, the vessel is working the Columbia River system in the Northwest U.S. The vessel was the largest vessel ever built by Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, Freeland, Wash. and is owned by American West Steamboat Company, Portland, Ore.

Developing overnight service is the most difficult part of the passenger vessel industry to get established. American West has and previous companies have been in the region a long time and have a smaller version of this vessel, Queen of the West, operating on the Northwest river routes as well. The Empress of the West will resume Alaskan service in the spring.

Not only is operating overnight passenger vessels a tough market to crack, the failure of the two 300 passenger overnight vessels built two years ago by American Classic Voyages has definitely put a chill on the American flagged overnight market. The fact that no one has stepped to buy these vessels out of bankruptcy for dimes on the dollar is further indication that this market is in a decline from a vessel construction standpoint.

There is one overnight cruise ship under construction in the U.S. It is a 220-ft., 100 passenger vessel with 51 staterooms. The shipyard building the vessel is Chesapeake Shipbuilding, Salisbury, Md. Owner of the vessel is American Cruise Lines, Haddam, Ct. The vessel has been launched and is currently in an outfitting dock at Chesapeake. To be called the American Spirit, the vessel will join the American Eagle and the American Glory on inland river voyages in 2005. The two existing vessels each have 31 staterooms and were both built at Chesapeake Shipbuilding in 2000 and 2002 respectively.

All three steam powered paddlewheelers of the Delta Queen Company resumed service in 2003 and one change will happen in 2004. The largest of the vessels, American Queen, will depart from its usual itinerary. Typically this vessel and its two sister ships Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen sail round trips out of New Orleans in the winter and spring and gradually work the upper Mississippi and Ohio Rivers as the weather warms, returning to New Orleans near the end of the year.

Perhaps responding to competition from the New Orleans-based cruise lines, the American Queen will adopt three and four day roundtrip Mississippi River cruises from New Orleans on a year around basis in 2004, leaving the other river systems to the other two vessels. Bottom line; don't look for any U.S. flagged overnight riverboats to be delivered in 2004.

Dinner Boats

Other segments of passenger vessel industry are doing well, based on recent comments by leading naval architects. Andy Lebet, VP of DeJong & Lebet, Jacksonville, Fla., says there is "lots of interest" in dinner boats, especially those serving the luxury, charter segment of the market.

"We typically design and engineer three- to four vessels of this type yearly," Lebet said. Many of the passenger vessels his company designs are Subchapter K vessels, allowing for more passengers than the Subchapter T vessels, limited to 149 people plus crew.

Among the vessels engineered by DeJong & Lebet in 2003 include two luxury 400-passenger yachts, the Atlantica and the Majestic. "Both of these vessels work the charter trade, the Alantica in New York and the Majestic on the West Coast," Lebet reported. (A complete report on the Majestic is contained in the January issue of MR’s sister publication Marine News.).

In 2004, the firm has more of the same kind of work including another 120-ft. by 33-ft. Sir Winston for Capt. Winston Knauss. Knauss typically builds a luxury dinner boat every two years or so and uses the latest ones in his own charter boat operation and sells the older ones. Keith Marine, Palatka, Fla., builds these vessels.

Freeport Shipbuilding, Freeport, Fla., builds a lot of the vessels DeJong & Lebet designs. At this time they are building a 120-ft. dinner boat for an undisclosed customer and they are also lengthening the 65-ft. Black Eyed Susan, a hydraulically powered paddlewheeler by 24 ft.

"The story on this vessel is a familiar one, Lebet said. "The owner needed a vessel capable of holding 149 people and he was turning down charters due to his passenger capacity constraints," Lebet said.

Tim Graul Marine Design, Sturgeon Bay, Wisc. also reports "A great 2003 and 2004 looks good as well." Graul's signature project in 2003 was the ferryboat Arnie J. Richter, a "K" class icebreaking ferry that can transport 20 cars and 170 passengers to Washington Island, Wisc. from the mainland. The 104-ft. by 37-ft. vessel has 2,000 hp of propulsion power via a pair of Caterpillar 3508 engines. Built by Bay Shipbuilding, Sturgeon Bay, Wisc. the ferry was christened on Memorial Day, 2003 by its owner Washington Island Ferry Line.

Graul reports that the repowering of passenger vessels has been very active for him in 2003 with other projects in 2004. At the present time, Shepler's Ferry Line, Mackinaw City, Wisc. is repowering one of their 265-passenger ferries that run between Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island. "The vessel originally had three Detroit Diesel V12-71 engines developing 930 hp each," Graul said. "We redesigned the vessel for a pair of Detroit Diesel 16V 2000 at 1280 hp each," Graul added.

Owner Capt. Bill Shepler said the vessel was also lengthened by six ft. at the stern so the boat could carry more luggage and bikes. This is our second repower," said Shepler. "We did the same thing to a nearly identical vessel in 2003 and discovered we boosted speed from 30 to 35 mph and the extra six ft. made the vessel easier to handle in high seas," Shepler added.

Graul is also repowering a riverboat and designing a new 128-ft. ferry. Graul also does a lot of engineering work for Skipperliner, Lacrosse, Wisc. on their 149 passenger luxury yachts.

Skipperliner produces several luxury yacht-style charter dinner boats per year. "We are now building our vessels in a new 68,000 sq. ft. building that should increase our productivity," said Todd Jordan, marketing manager of Skipperliner.

Skipperliner is in the process of delivering three luxury yachts; the 149-passenger Ambassador and the 400-passenger Majestic to Pacific Avalon Yacht Charters, Newport Beach, Calif. And the 149-passenger Marco Island Princess to the upscale Marco Island Florida market.

Unlike the vessels for Pacific Avalon that is strictly a charter operation focusing on the wedding market, the 85-ft. by 20-ft. Marco Island Princess will run daily luncheon, cocktail and dinner cruises as well as private charters.

Even charter vessels can be built for speed. The Circle Line Statue of Liberty Ferry Inc. of New York City has taken delivery of the Zephyr, a 142-ft. by 37 ft. all aluminum charter vessel that can travel at 30 knots thanks to four Cummins KT-38's and four Hamilton waterjets. Speeds as low as 10 knots are used during sightseeing and meal functions by dropping off line two of the engines.

A relatively new shipyard shipyard burst on the scene in 2003. Island Boats that originally operated from a landlocked location near New Iberia, La., opened along Bayou Teche in Jeanerette, La. Before moving to their Bayou Teche location, the company had to truck their vessels to the Port of Iberia to launch them.

In the last two months, the company has delivered Quicksilver, a 55-ft. by 23-ft. vessel for divers to travel to reefs of the Hawaiian Islands at 26 knots. Propulsion power is via a pair of 600 hp Luggar diesels. Also delivered in this time frame has been a pair of 68-ft. by 22-ft. tenders for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. The vessels carry cruise ship passengers from the big ship to the island of Belize that has no port facilities deep enough to accommodate the RCCL cruise ships.

The vessels can carry 230 passengers per trip and were built to ABS standards, a requirement of all vessels in the RCCL fleet. Power is via a pair of Caterpillar 3406E engines that can propel the vessels to 25 knots.

From the Mouth of an Owner

From an operational standpoint, many excursion boat owners are still digging out from the ripples of 9/11. "Our business is steadily recovering," said Gordon Stevens, president of New Orleans Steamboat, that operates the 1,600 passenger, steam propelled paddlewheeler Natchez on harbor tours in New Orleans and the John James Audubon that offers trips between the Audubon Zoo and the Aquarium.

"Our success is tied closely to the overall New Orleans tourism and convention business. Fortunately both the city and state have very active marketing programs that have helped New Orleans recover its tourism base faster than many cities," Stevens added.

"Through both the state, city and our own efforts, we are trying to attract leisure travelers that may well drive to New Orleans as a destination," Stevens said. "Typically these visitors stay longer and have larger budgets than conventioneers," said Stevens.

Ferries

Ferries, both slow and fast, continued to exhibit growth in 2003 and more is expected in 2004. For the first time in decades, auto/passenger ferries will start appearing on the Great Lakes in 2004. On Lake Ontario, the Canadian American Transportation Systems (C.A.T.S.) will operate a 43-knot catamaran between Rochester, NY and Toronto, Ont. The 284-ft. by 78-ft. vessel will carry 774 passengers, 238 cars and 10 trucks. The ferry is being built by Austal Ships of Australia.

The U.S. subsidiary of Austal Ships, Austal USA, Mobile, Ala. is building a slightly smaller catamaran to operate on Lake Michigan between Muskegon, Mich to Milwaukee, Wisc. The Lake Express 58 is a 192-ft., 46-car, 253-passenger ferry that can operate at 34 knots. Propulsion power is via four MTU 16V 70 diesels driving Kamewa waterjets.

If these two vessels open successfully on the Great Lakes, expect to see more fast car/passenger ferries debut on other Great Lakes routes. There is talk of all truck ferries operating between Canada and Cleveland, Ohio and tapping the large number of casino patrons in the Cleveland area to a fast ferry that would travel to the casino at Windsor, Ontario.

The tremendous demand for ferryboats in the New York City area has subsided somewhat but vessels were delivered in 2003 including several small vessels for NY Water Taxi built by Derecktor Shipyards. Derecktor also launched in November a large passenger/auto fast ferry for service in Alaska. The Fairweather is the first of two such ferries that will carry 250 passengers and 35 cars at 32 knots. The Fairweather will be delivered in February 2004.

N.Y. Waterways serves the New York metro area with 45 ferries including two new ones supplied in 2003 by Allen Marine, Inc., Sitka, Alaska. The company now averages 65,000 riders a day.

Gladding Hearn, Somerset, Mass. has long been a builder of fast ferries. As an INCAT Designs licensee, the company has built more than two dozen fast ferries and delivered a 143 ft., 36.5 knot INCAT vessel to Hyannis Harbor Tours in 2003. On the books for 2004 is a 30-m, 30-knot, 149 passenger fast ferry for Mystic Ferry Leasing. Much of Gladding Hearn's 2004 production will be for pilot boats for a number of pilot associations.

In the steel-hulled "slow" ferry business, the year was highlighted by a pair of 180-ft. ferries built for the North Carolina Department of Transportation. Both vessels will serve the busy Outer Banks areas so popular with summer tourists.

The fast ferry business, both passenger and the larger vessels capable of carrying both vehicles and passengers, will continue to grow in 2004 and beyond. The Great Lakes is a prime area for fast ferry development as well as areas along both coasts with high population density.

Security

The Maritime Security Act of 2002 requires all operators of commercial vessels with a passenger capacity greater than 150 to submit a vessel security plan to the Coast Guard by December 31, 2003 and be prepared to implement the plan by June 30, 2004. Knowing the burden this planning process would put on its members, the Passenger Vessel Association developed such a plan. PVA members had only to write a letter to the Coast Guard by December 31, 2003 stating they are using the PVA plan. PVA members in good standing will have until June 30, 2004 to complete and implement their security plan.

This Act also has a very controversial part requiring the installation of Automated Information Systems (AIS) on all ferries carrying more than 50 passengers and all commercial vessels over 65 ft. in length that are traveling in a vessel traffic system area. These systems are considered costly by some owners … perhaps $10,000 or more per vessel. Also, its seems some operators view these requirements as burdensome and not adding any real security to the vessels or their passengers. Final details on the technology of the AIS system and its final implementation has yet to be ruled on.

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