Feature: Seastreak: Outward Bound

Monday, June 09, 2003

While the fast ferries of SeaStreak were not the first to provide high-speed commuter service to the Highlands region of New Jersey, they were the first to be set-up by a Bermudan company. "Sea Container, Ltd., operates in three main areas," said SeaStreak's General Manager, David Stafford "marine container leasing, various leisure-bound operations, and passenger transport." SeaStreak falls into the third group, one of several comparable operations the parent company runs worldwide. They have fast ferry operations in the English Channel (Hoverspeed, Ltd.), fast and conventional ferry operations in the Irish and Baltic Seas (Man Steam Packet Co. and Silja Line respectively, the latter 50% owned).

Sea Container also has railroad interests in the U.K. and Peru, among others. It owns two container ships, five container manufacturing facilities, and owns or part-owns six container service depots. It owns 63% of Orient-Express Hotels, with "41 deluxe leisure properties in 16 countries." Their ship management and naval architect subsidiaries serve outside clients as well as the parent company. Additional activities include "property development, publishing, fruit farming in the Ivory Coast and Brazil, and a U.K.-based travel agency." The Jones Act requires American ownership of SeaStreak, as well as American crews and American-built vessels. "Hydro Lines operate our three smaller boats, Manhattan, Liberty, and Brooklyn," said Mr. Stafford, "while Circle Navigation operate the New York and New Jersey, our bigger boats." All but the SeaStreak Brooklyn are Gladding-Hearn built catamarans.

SeaStreak Brooklyn is the only mono-hull in the fleet, built by Swift Ships of Morgan City, LA, used mostly for charters outside the Manhattan-New Jersey ferry runs. "The hull design of the cats is very specific for these waters," said Mr. Stafford, "very good in rougher weather, they ride very stable, don't porpoise around. And you can indeed have rough water between Sandy Hook and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge."

Even the stability of a catamaran left a bit more of a bounce than a tugboater might be accustomed to out past the Verrazano, one choppy Saturday near the end of the winter. But the passengers, most of them regulars who greeted the crew upon boarding, seemed indifferent to the movements of the boat. From appearances, most aboard SeaStreak Manhattan for that afternoon ride were professionals for whom a round-trip priced as much as $36 was just fine. Compared to the bus or train, it saves an hour or more and provides an ambiance that, if stopping short of opulent, is certainly designed for comfort.

Panorama Afloat

The ride begins at East 34th Street, where the crosstown bus deposits the traveler at SeaStreak's doorstep near the heliport. The facility is predominantly open-air and afloat, its principal acknowledgement of ferry service being the gates and gangways that direct boarders. First stop on the run, and the only other in New York, is Pier 11, in the financial district. The boat makes it in 12 minutes, probably faster than a traffic-dodging taxi on the FDR. The price for a pier-to-pier ride on the boat is $5.00.

These couple miles of the East River, compressed into minutes, give a remarkable montage of the cityscape: from the nearly unbroken barricade of red-brick highrises on the coast of Manhattan, to huge generating plants, to those ferryboat-slayers themselves, the bridges - the Williamsburg, the Manhattan, and the Brooklyn, in that order. Just south of the latter, the ferry comes around the tall ships of the South Street Seaport and glides to its dock. There the time-traveler, having come back 150 years already, prepares to see New York from vantage that Hudson did in 1609, and Verrazano the century previous - a distant mound of soil through weather at its largest, from the very definite water.

But most of the passengers this trip had brought books to read. There were a few who braved the middle deck, whose normally open aft section had been partially enclosed for the winter - though still providing a lifetime's worth of fresh air. The top deck however, completely open, was no-man's land that day. "It beats you up even in the summer," a regular mentioned, as the poodle she'd carried aboard cavorted at her feet.

The two destinations during weekdays are Highlands and Atlantic Highlands, again about 15 minutes apart on the company's timetables (it's Highlands only on weekends). Both look less like ferry terminals than what they are - marinas with parking lots and a restaurant. The Clam Hut at Atlantic Highlands and The Original Oyster in Highlands reflect the local heritage. At both locations, the prevailing impression is of water, of pilings, of trees and steep hills, and the sense of passing to an earlier time is complete.

Local Growth

Fishing charters and clamming are among the traditional industries of Highlands, according to SeaStreak regular Bruce Smiga. The CEO of PreClick, a software and internet provider that helps consumers organize their digital snapshots, Mr. Smiga seems the sort of gentrifier who would move into the neighborhood for its new link to Wall Street. But it's the opposite this time - Mr. Smiga grew up there. "I used to ride my bike down the hill past this house," he says of the large, handsome spread on the bend, high on the hill, with a telescope at the picture window overlooking the water, "and now I own it." Mr. Smiga thinks the value of the place has gone up about 15% per annum since SeaStreak opened the area up.

"Our ridership has grown," said David Stafford, "from about 260,000 passengers a year to 750,000." SeaStreak has had its own role in transplanting residents. "On 9/11, we evacuated people from downtown to the best place we could take them, our regular landings. When they arrived in Atlantic Highlands they didn't know where they were, or that there was such a place. Some of them moved in. In five years, I would be very surprised if the business didn't double again."

If ferries have had roles in building communities, and if SeaStreak has owners who control hotels and deluxe properties already, anything can be imagined in the long run. But for the present, SeaStreak's imperative is to keep up with a swelling ridership. At the same time, it must sustain its existing customer base.

The company pays homage to its regular customers in more than one way. For starters, the largest book of tickets, for 120 trips, brings the per-ride fare down to under $12. Second, as signs pointedly declare at the dock, in the event of overcrowding, bookholders get first boarding priority. Then come roundtrip and one-way ticket-holders, then non-ticket holders who can pay their passage aboard. If too much of a crowd descends, only bookholders may be allowed to board. There's always the next boat, of course - an hour or so later, by which time even the genteel can devolve to a mass-transit mentality.

"One guy actually threw a Coke bottle at the boat," the skipper told us as he piloted the Manhattan back to Manhattan. "This was no wild kid, he was 55 or 60 years old, a regular, but he had a roundtrip ticket, and we were at capacity with ticket-book holders. He really could have caused damage. He will not be riding any vessel under my command in the future." SeaStreak cannot be unhappy to be in demand, and they're celebrating, like most of the players in New York's ferry revival, by building more boats. Mr. Stafford reports that two of the large New Jersey type are due from Gladding-Hearn next September and January, the SeaStreak Highlands and the SeaStreak Wall Street.

Surviving New York

New York is a tough kind of place, and it needs a tough kind of boat, according to Peter Duclos, President of Gladding-Hearn. "New York is certainly one of the harshest environments for a working vessel," he told us, "things break in New York that you don't see break anywhere else. New York waters are rough, dirty, full of debris, it gets very hot, it gets very cold. I don't know of any harbor in the world that has as many extremes. Boston comes close where the temperatures are concerned, but they don't get the severe freshwater ice from upstate that comes down the Hudson. There are tremendous currents to deal with for getting in and out of docks, and we need fendering all around the boats to protect from damage.

"Everything about New York's boats has to be strong, which in places means heavy. But also, these need to be lightweight, high speed vessels - so they're a contradiction of requirements. We make them lightweight where we can do so, but there's nothing light-duty about these boats - they run 4,000-5,000 hours a year - that's tugboat stuff."

The larger boats have waterjet drives, which themselves required adaptation to tough old New York. "We had some issues in the first year," recalled Mr. Duclos, "debris issues, and some durability issues in that environment, so they've had to beef-up some components. But a waterjet is really the only thing that will survive in that environment at high speeds. In debris they're less prone to damange than a propeller and shaft and strut. There was also a size issue - we couldn't fit four prop systems into the hulls. And also important about them, considering where they go, is the shallow draft of the waterjet - maybe 3.5 to 4 ft., which really helps them get in and out of Atlantic Highlands."

As with so much of the SeaStreak operation, the boats have a bit of an international accent, starting with the Aussie twang of Sydney Incat. "We buy about half of what we need for the design from them," said Mr. Duclos. "We take it from there. We've been working with them for 20 years on similar designs, and there's no duplication of effort. We've developed such a high level of understanding with one another that we know what to expect. We're in contact on our projects 24 hours a day, exchanging drawings and plans on the internet."

A parallel familiarity with has evolved with SeaStreak, Mr. Duclos recounts. "The first boats, like any first boats for a new owner, were a bit of a struggle - not only did we have to adjust to that marine environment, but we were learning to communicate with each other, too. But now that's been done, and it's nice to do these next two boats and really not have to ask further questions."

Said SeaStreak's David Stafford, "The two new builds are to increase the frequency out of Highlands and Atlantic Highlands." It remains to be seen if, in the process, the pair will simply meet demand, or increase it all the more.

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