By Larry Pearson
It's 8:30 a.m. as the Big Cat Express saddles up to the dock at the Port of Morgan City, La. It is Sea Trial day for the big quad engine catamaran ferry. No question she is waterjet powered as the tops of the blue "buckets" of the four Hamilton Jet 651's break the surface of the water at the stern. Just above the buckets are the exhausts, large four stainless steel pipes that curve downward toward the water.
About 25 pickup trucks and my Ford Taurus wait the arrival of the 150-ft. by 34-ft. vessel. Painted gleaming white, the three-deck vessel looks like it was built for speed. Today we will find out just how fast it can travel.
Emerging from the vehicles were several executives from Gulf Craft, Inc. builder of the catamaran including Kevin and Scotty Tibbs, who have taken over the day-to-day operation of the family-owned shipyard along with brother Bryant from their father Scott Tibbs.
This is also an important day for Cummins Mid-South, supplier of the four KTA-50 propulsion engines and the two 75 k 6BTA.5 gensets. Gulf Craft typically builds Cummins-powered monohulled crew/supply boats, so this is a new application for both Gulf Craft and for Cummins
Calvin Klotz, manager of the New Orleans branch of Cummins Mid-South will ride the sea trial along
with his ace Morgan City-based salesman "Red" Cunningham.
Also onboard is Ben Erdely, manager of the New Orleans based Sewart Supply who supplied the NICO gears for the vessel.
Speeds of upwards of 40 mph are needed if the Big Cat Express is to meet the objectives of its owner. Sea Key West, LLC owns the vessel and will immediately put it on the 112-mile route from Ft. Myers, Fla. To Key West, Fla.
In business since 1996, Sea Key West has two monohulls serving Key West from both Marco Island and Ft. Myers. According to their published schedules, it is a four-hour trip one way from either Ft. Myers or Marco Island to the place Jimmy Buffet made famous.
"We hope the Big Cat Express will cut 30 minutes or so off the Ft. Myers to Key West run," said Captain George Hilton of Sea Key West. To increase the overall speed of their fleet, Hilton said they were going to transfer the vessel currently on the Ft. Myers to Key West to the Marco Island-Key West run. This is the Whale Watcher, also built by Gulf Craft.
The Big Cat Express was designed by Crowther Multihulls of Sydney, Australia. "We have an agreement with Crowther to design the high-speed ferries that we build," said Scotty Tibbs, comptroller for Gulf Craft
As is usual on sea trials, the US. Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office calls the shots. The vessel needs a Certificate of Inspection to be able to operate and carry passengers and the sea trial is the opportunity for the boat and the crew to demonstrate they can meet all regulations. The Big Cat Express' catamaran design features a pair of Cummins KTA-50 diesels rated at 1,800 hp in each hull. Due to the slimness of the hulls, the engines are mounted in line. Both engines are fitted with NICO horizontal offset gears. The gear outputs allow maximum horizontal separation of the two drive shafts to properly couple with the Hamilton Jet waterjets. Cummins Mid South also supplied a pair of Cummins 6BT5.9 diesels driving 75 kW Newage generators. There is one generator in each hull located aft of the propulsion motors and forward of the area containing the waterjet drives.m Each hull also contains a 3,000-gallon fuel tank, a 515-gallon fresh water tank and a 220-gallon sewage tank. The vessel will hold 378 passengers but Captain Hilton estimates that the vessel will seldom travel with more than 300 passengers. "We are known for upscale service and this means not filling every available seat. On a three plus hour ride, passenger comfort is of utmost concern," Hilton said.
Speaking of passenger comfort, Beurteaux seating products were specified. The main deck cabin has 150 Beurteaux seats while the mid deck cabin has 80 seats and the mid deck exterior area has 104 seats. The exterior seats are a big quality improvement over aluminum benches that are hot in the summer, cold in the winter and do not quickly shed water in inclement weather. "The fabric on the exterior seats solves all these problems plus the seating unit offers back support," said Sara Hobbs of Beurteaux North America. In the pilot house there is Beurteaux Helm seating featuring controls in the armrests. The main deck of the vessel features 24 slot machines aft of the seating area forward. Behind the slots is a bar almost the full width of the vessel and a galley for the food service offered onboard.
The pilot house is far forward on the Mid Deck with two radar sets, a GPS, a SSB, a Depth Repeater, satellite compass and an AIS unit all by Furuno
. VHF radios are by Standard and there is a satellite TV system by KVH Tracvision that offers entertainment on both passenger decks. The big question of how fast the Big Cat Express could travel was soon answered when the vessel entered the Gulf of Mexico. The throttles were advanced forward and the vessel accelerated. Soon the Big Cat Express was traveling at 38 knots or more than 41 mph literally flying over the light chop in the Gulf of Mexico. .
The vessel made several speed runs during the day as well as complying with other tests structured by the Coast Guard. Even at maximum speed the ride was very smooth due to the advanced hull design and the MDI ride control system. At the end of the day, the Big Cat Express had answered the speed question and was also judged to have excellent ride characteristics. The vessel left Louisiana for Ft. Myers on Sunday February 1, 2004 to join the other Sea Key West vessel.