New York Times photograph of first ferry coming to New York City for commuter ferry service going under a bridge in Florida. The boat got stuck in the mud and had to go back, not unlike an experimental run in Jamaica Bay three years ago.
The captain and crew of the New York City-bound ferryboat known simply as Hull 200 were on their way from a Louisiana boatyard to take up its route carrying passengers from Rockaway to Manhattan and back when they ran into a familiar problem. The boat got stuck in the muddy bottom.
As Yogi Berra would have said, “It was déjà vu all over again.”
Three years ago, a similar ferryboat from NY Waterways was making an experimental run from its Beach 108 Street terminal to Bayswater to check on the feasibility of an east end stop. The boat, with officials, politicians and reporters aboard, got stuck in the mud of Jamaica Bay and had to be evacuated by small boats from FDNY’s Marine Unit until the boat could be refloated.
Hull 200 was navigating a swamp-like area when the boat jerked to a stop. Three and a half days into its maiden voyage, Hull 200 was stuck in the Central Florida mud with no help in sight, according to a long New York Times article by Patrick McGeehan. The Times reporter and his photographer, Scott McIntire were imbedded with the crew to get a story and photographs as the first ferry in a line of boats that will come to New York City to operate the Five Borough Ferry Service due in the early part of the summer.
Boats get trapped in muck all the time, of course. But this sudden halt interrupted a crucial test for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s commuter ferry program.
According to McGeehan, Hull 200 — which will eventually be renamed — was the first completed piece of a fleet under construction at shipyards in Alabama and Louisiana.
While it is not clear from the Times article whether or not Hull 200 would be used on the Rockaway route, an earlier press release made it clear that the Rockaway-bound boats were different from the others because they needed a higher freeboard to take the ocean waves. Those boats were built in Louisiana, but Hull 200 started out in Alabama.
For the most part, the trip involves hugging the Eastern Seaboard for more than 1,000 miles in a ferryboat designed to zip between landings in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. But the first obstacle is the Florida Peninsula, which adds a few days and hundreds of miles to the schedule.
“It’s a long journey in a small boat,” James Caspers, a veteran mariner who is the acting captain of Hull 200, told the Times. “It’s like Kon-Tiki,” he said, referring to the famed voyage of the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl.
Hornblower Cruises and Events, the company that the city chose to operate the ferry service, decided to try to save time and avoid trouble by cutting across Florida instead of going around it, where any rough waters or high winds might prove more of a challenge for the relatively light vessels. For about five hours on Friday, that seemed like a wise choice, the Times article said.
After three days in the Gulf of Mexico, the boat, an 85-foot catamaran, pulled away from a dock at the Fort Myers Yacht Basin on the west coast of Florida in the predawn darkness and headed east through the Caloosahatchee River. Along with Caspers, it carried seven men who had come aboard in Bayou La Batre, Ala., the home of Horizon Shipbuilding. Only one of them, Clip Hopkins, had ever taken this obscure shortcut.
In his regular job, Mr. Hopkins, 52, captains a small ferry that carries cars and trucks to and from Gee’s Bend on the Alabama River. He said he was “just tickled” to be bound for New York for the first time in his life.
“I like my job,” Mr. Hopkins said. “But sometimes it’s like ‘Groundhog Day.’ It gets kind of monotonous.”
He did not seem to mind that he was bunking each night with the other men in the passenger compartment of a commuter ferry, eating food stored in an ice chest and sleeping on an inflatable mattress.
The concession stand in the rear of the compartment was stocked with cereal, fruit, granola bars, and microwaveable macaroni and cheese. The microwave and a coffee maker were strapped to a table with bungee cords. Despite the makeshift quarters and the lack of a shower, the only hardship any of the men cited was having to share one balky toilet.
None of the crew had ever made this crossing. But Caspers and Hornblower executives had studied charts and determined that the shallow canals were deep enough for the ferry, whose hulls protrude less than six feet below the surface. Bill Buckley, Hornblower’s director of marine operations, said he had crossed Florida in a similar ferry without incident.
So, the Times story said, Caspers and his ad hoc crew plowed eastward for a daylong leg of the journey that would require passing through five locks and under several drawbridges. Among the men onboard were four who had recently been hired by Hornblower to be captains of the Citywide Ferry fleet. The others were an Indian-born engineer employed by Hornblower and a Cuban-born representative of the company that consulted with Hornblower on its choice of French engines for the ferries.
City officials are still deciding what to name the boats, but the city’s Department of Education had invited second graders to submit ideas. One of their suggestions: Friendship Express.
But the first order of business was getting Hull 200 to New York Harbor.
By midmorning, the river had connected to a canal running along the northern edge of the Everglades. Known as the Okeechobee Waterway, most of it is man-made to help control flooding.
After the boat passed through the third of five locks on the waterway, Caspers swung it around to head toward Clewiston in the rim canal that skirts the south shore of Lake Okeechobee.
A few minutes later, they spotted a large gator slinking off the left bank as the ferry’s low wake approached. Almost immediately, the ferry ceased gliding through the canal. The pontoon on the right — or starboard — side of its hull had sliced into a mound of mud on the bottom that pulled the boat toward the right bank.
The captain cut the engines. The electronic instruments indicated that the water should have been deep enough to pass through, but the boat was clearly stuck. The mood onboard shifted from calm to worried.
Maneuvering out of the muck could have been easy, but Caspers was concerned about doing any damage to the hull or propellers of a brand new boat that cost close to $4 million. He called a towing company but learned that it could offer no help anytime soon. Then he called all hands to the top deck to explain that they might be spending the night right there, several feet from shore in a canal that they knew contained at least two gators.
The captain listed the options: Wait for a tow; try to lighten the ferry by dumping a tank of 200 gallons of potable water and hope to float off; or start up the engine on the port side, which was still floating, and use it to turn the boat clockwise until it was safe to start the starboard engine.
As long as there were no rocks down there, everyone agreed, the third option should work. And it did. After two hours there, Hull 200 was back in motion, but headed west.
On Saturday morning, the crew members stowed their air mattresses and got Hull 200 on its way, retracing its path from Fort Myers.
“We tried,” Caspers said. “It cost us a day or two and a little excitement.” He said he was glad they were stuck only briefly because he “never wanted to be a famous captain.”
After inspecting the boat in Fort Myers and deciding that the seas around Key West had calmed enough for safe passage, Caspers and his crew headed back into the Gulf on Sunday. He said the rerouted voyage could take one to two weeks, depending on the weather.