Pacific Maritime Magazine - Marine Business for the Operations Sector

By Jim Shaw 

West Coast Ferry Operators Modernizing Their Fleets


February 1, 2018

The 1963-built Matanuska will be out of service this year to have its propulsion system rebuilt in a project that could cost between $32 and $36 million and take nearly a year to complete. Photo courtesy of AMHS.

Ferries provide extremely important services along the west coast and a number of new vessels are entering operation this year and next, most incorporating up-graded systems and/or new technologies.

In the far north the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS), which operates some of the longest ferry routes in the world, is to add two new vessels to its fleet over the next 16 months. The Vigor Shipyard at Ketchikan plans to deliver the twins Tazlina and Hubbard to the AMHS before the end of next year, each with a capacity of 300 passengers and 53 cars. They will function as day boats, with Tazlina projected to take over the Lynn Canal summer service connecting the communities of Juneau, Haines and Skagway from the 54-year-old Malaspina while Hubbard will function as a relief vessel on Southeast Alaskan routes.

Next up for the AMHS will be a replacement for the 1964-built Tustumena, with the Alaskan Department of Transport expected to sign a construction contract for the estimated $240 million ship once state funding is in place. The new construction is coming after the 53-year-old Tustumena had to be drydocked this past summer for emergency steel work while another of AMHS' mainline vessels, Columbia, was having its propulsion system repaired by the Vigor yard at Portland (see Pacific Maritime Magazine, Sept 2017).

This year Tustumena's sister, the 1963-built Matanuska, will be out of service to have its propulsion system rebuilt, including engines, shafts, reduction gears, propellers and rudders, in a project that could cost between $32 and $36 million and take nearly a year to complete.

Possible Reform for AMHS?

As a government-controlled transportation service supported by both state and federal funding, the AMHS has been living on year-to-year budgets that make service and repair scheduling difficult, particularly as state oil revenues continue to drop and the fleet gets older. In 2016, Alaska Governor Bill Walker signed a memorandum of understanding with the Southeast Conference, a Southeast Alaska nonprofit economic development group, to lead an examination of what reforms the state might take to improve AMHS's operations over the long-term.

The AMHS Reform Initiative draft report was issued last year and suggested that a public corporation, modeled in part on the Alaska Railroad Corporation, be created to take over administration of the system while several existing ferries be replaced by smaller, more efficient vessels. The proposed corporation would be able to continue receiving state and federal funds but would also be able to change work rules, bring about operational savings.

According to the report, wages and benefits currently make up about 60 percent of the ferry system's costs. Ships that might be retired under the scheme would be the 44-year-old Columbia and 20-year-old Kennicott, as well as the fast ferries Fairweather and Chenega, the latter already laid up because of budget constraints.

The proposed cuts would leave a nine-vessel fleet but one which would be manned for considerably fewer hours, with annual weeks of service cut by about 20 percent.

BC Ferries Buys Foreign

In neighboring British Columbia, BC Ferries (BCF), established in 1960 and considered the largest passenger ferry operator in North America, is currently operating 35 vessels serving 47 terminals, many of them on islands. In a model now being looked at by Alaska, BCF was once a provincial Crown corporation but has been operating as an independently managed, publicly-owned company since 2003, although its remains subsidized by the governments of British Columbia and Canada.

Shortly after its reformation, and following a financially disastrous program involving the local construction of three large high-speed ferries for C$450 million that had to be sold for C$19 million, BCF began acquiring most of its tonnage overseas. This saw Germany's Flensburger Shipyard deliver four new ferries starting in 2007, including three of the largest double-ended vessels in the world, while the Greek-built Northern Adventure, ex-Sonia, was acquired on the second-hand market.

More recently, BCF has taken delivery of three dual-fuel ferries from Polish builder Remontowa while acquiring another second-hand Greek ferry, the 150-passenger Aqua Spirit, for service between Port Hardy and Bella Coola as Northern Sea Wolf.

Late last year a construction contract was let with Holland's Damen Group for two new hybrid ferries that will replace the 59-year old North Island Princess and 53-year old Quadra Queen II by 2020. The new vessels will make use of diesel electric/battery power generation and propulsion systems while having a capacity for 44 vehicles and 300 passengers. As they are being built the 1994-built Spirit of British Columbia and 1995-built Spirit of Vancouver Island, the largest ferries in the BCF fleet, will be re-powered in Poland with LNG burning dual-fuel engines.

Other BC Ferries

Although BC Ferries is the largest ferry system in British Columbia there are a number of other operators. One of these is Seaspan Ferries Corporation (SFC), part of Vancouver-based Seaspan, which has placed two new dual-fueled/hybrid (liquefied natural gas, diesel and battery) ferries in operation over the past year. These vessels, Seaspan Swift and Seaspan Reliant, were built by Turkey's Sedef Shipyard to transport commercial truck trailers between the Canadian mainland and Vancouver Island. They are the first newbuilds to join SFC's fleet since 2002, although others may follow.

Another ferry operator is V2V Vacations, owned by Australia's Riverside Marine, which launched an upscale passenger-only service between Vancouver and Victoria last year using the 254-passenger catamaran V2V Empress. However, the company was forced to discontinue service in August when the 23-year-old vessel suffered severe engine problems. Sent to the Point Hope Maritime yard on Vancouver Island for repairs, the boat is expected to return to daily service by March.

The company is also planning to have a new catamaran built by the summer of 2019, at an expected cost of C$15 million, to allow it to run two round trips per day. Although expected to compete with V2V Vacations on the Victoria - Vancouver run this year, Seattle-based Clipper Navigation has decided to operate its recently imported catamaran Clipper VI, ex-Halunder Jet, between Victoria and Seattle in replacement of the older Clipper 1 after encountering berthing difficulties for the larger 579-passenger vessel in Vancouver.

Washington State

Washington State Ferries (WSF), part of the Washington State Department of Transportation, is the largest ferry operator in the US and the fourth largest in the world. It currently operates a fleet of 22 vessels carrying over 24 million passengers annually.

The service was established in 1951 when the state took over a number of routes and vessels operated by The Puget Sound Navigation Company, better known as the Black Ball Line. A descendant of that company, Black Ball Ferry Line, continues to operate the 1959-built Coho between Port Angeles, Washington and Victoria, British Columbia.

WSF has been introducing a number of new Olympic class ferries to its fleet since 2014 when the 17-knot Tokitae was placed in service, followed more recently by Samish and Chimacum. These double-ended ferries can carry up to 144 vehicles and 1,500 passengers. The latest of this class, Suquamish, is expected to enter service later this year, first as a maintenance relief vessel, then to be a regular on the Mukilteo - Clinton run starting next year.

By state mandate all the Olympic class ferries have been built by contractors resident in Washington, led by Vigor Industrial at Seattle, and including more than a dozen Washington-based subcontractors. As the new ferries enter service older WSF units are being retired, with the 1958-built Klahowya now up for sale while the 1959-built Tillikum may be retired next year.

Other Puget Sound Ferries

Besides WSF there are a number of other ferry operators serving routes in Puget Sound, including Kitsap Transit, which is having a new battery-diesel hybrid catamaran designed by Seattle-based Glosten and built by Bellingham's All American Marine. The 70-foot vessel will carry 150 passengers and will be powered by a battery-diesel combination that will utilize two BAE HybriDrive propulsion systems driving fixed pitch propellers.

Upon delivery later this year it will operate across Sinclair Inlet, between Bremerton and Port Orchard, where the 1917-built Carlisle II, one of the last remaining examples of a Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet vessel, has been active. Kitsap Transit has also inaugurated a passenger-only route accross Puget Sound, between Bremerton and Seattle, using the 118-passenger fast-ferry Rich Passage 1 which has been fitted with a special wake-reducing foil. This service is expected to be followed by routes linking Seattle with the communities of Kingston later this year and Southworth in 2020.

Although two 250-passenger catamarans are to be built for these routes at least one second-hand vessel may be purchased on an interim basis. Already identified is a 350-seat catamaran completed by the East Coast's Derecktor yard in 1996 that could be acquired and renovated for approximately $4.75 million.

Other Puget Sound ferry operators include Pierce County, which employs the small double-end boats Christine Anderson and Steilacoom II between Steilacoom and Anderson and Ketron islands; the Washington State Department of Social and Human Services, which operates a ferry from Steilacoom to nearby McNeil Island where a state confinement facility is maintained, and Skagit County, which is having a new vehicle/passenger ferry designed by Seattle's Glosten to replace its 1979-built Guemes on the run between Anacortes and Guemes Island.


California has a large number of passenger-only ferries in operation within San Francisco Bay and from several southern California points out to the Channel Islands, San Pedro-based Catalina Express operating eight boats alone. There is also a short ferry run maintained within San Diego Bay between downtown San Diego and the Coronado peninsula. The southern California services are privately-owned and mainly geared to tourist traffic but San Francisco's Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) and Golden Gate Ferry (GGF) services are both government agencies. The latter is part of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District (GGBHT) and provides ferry service between downtown San Francisco and the towns of Larkspur, Sausalito, and Tiburon in Marin County to the north.

San Francisco's Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA), established after the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, is a consolidation of a number of previously existing ferry operations, including the Alameda/Oakland Ferry, Alameda Harbor Bay Ferry and Baylink Ferry. WETA routes connect the cities of San Francisco, Oakland, Alameda, Vallejo and South San Francisco, and handle more than 2.5 million passengers annually.

Later this year a new route is expected to open between San Francisco and Richmond as Seattle's Vigor delivers two additional 400-passenger boats while additional services are planned to Antioch, Hercules, Martinez and Redwood City.

New San Francisco Boats

WETA currently has a dozen ferries in operation and a number under construction. Over the past year it has taken delivery of the first two of a series of four Incat Crowther-designed catamaran ferries being built by Vigor Marine in Washington State. These boats can carry 400 passengers and are propelled by a pair of 1,950-hp engines that make use of selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology to reduce emissions to Tier 4 standards while achieving a speed of 27 knots.

In terms of capacity they are a large step up from the Incat-Crowther designed 225-passenger ferries Gemini and Pisces that were introduced by the ferry service in 2011. However, they will be eclipsed in capacity and speed by a larger series of three 445-passenger ferries being built by the Dakota Creek yard in Washington and due to be delivered between this year and 2020. These boats will be powered by MTU 16V4000 engines driving Hamilton waterjets to produce a loaded speed of 34 knots.

With WETA projecting that its Bay Area ridership will increase to 12 million passengers by 2025 the agency is planning to expand its fleet to at least 30 ferries over the next 10 years and possibly to as many as 44 ferries by 2035. Among other Bay area operators, Alcatraz Cruises, which operates a service to Alcatraz Island, has retrofitted its vessels as diesel/electric hybrids that also make use of solar panels while Red and White Fleet has ordered a 600-passenger vessel from Bellingham, Washington-based All American Marine that will be a Lithium-Ion battery-electric hybrid when delivered within the next few months.


South of the border Mexico's Baja Ferries has been expanding its fleet and last year acquired the Japanese-built ferry Ri Zhao Dong Fang from Chinese operator Rizhao Haitong for approximately $6 million. The 1992-built vessel is now operating alongside the 2001-built California Star, ex-Stena Forwarder, on Gulf of California services as Baja Star. In addition, the 5,700-dwt San Jorge, ex-Flandria Seaways, has been purchased from Denmark's DFDS for freight-only operations on the Gulf where she has replaced the 1978-built La Paz Star, since sold to Cypriot owners as Med Star.

A smaller vessel, the 4,824-dwt Searoad Mersey, was acquired from Australia's SeaRoad Shipping last year and, following work at Ensenada, has been renamed Balandra Star.

AMHS' fast ferry Chenega has been laid up since having its original MTU diesels replaced at the Foss yard in Seattle because of budget constraints. Photo courtesy of AMHS.

The company also employs the 1989-built Caribbean Fantasy in the Caribbean under its America Cruise Ferries banner. This ship had earlier operated in the Gulf of California as Chihuahua Star where it replaced the 1973-built Sinaloa Star<</i>/strong>, which was broken up in 2008. The latter had been one of three German-built ferries placed in service during the early 1970s by a division of Mexico's State Railways, all later transferred to the state-owned Grupo Sematur which went out of business in the early 2000s.

Baja Ferries, formed around that same time, took over several of Sematur's routes and currently operates services between Pichilingue, on the tip of Baja California near La Paz, and the ports of Mazatlan and Topolobampo on the Mexican mainland. A second company, Aeromaritime SA de CV operates the small ferry Santa Rosalía between the Baja California port of Santa Rosalía and the mainland port of Guaymas while a forth former state route between Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta has been left inactive.


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2020