The new double-ended ferry Island Home pulled into the Steamship Authority wharf in Fairhaven on Monday afternoon, a few minutes before sunset, after a seven-day trip from Pascagoula, Miss. The $32 million, 255-foot vessel's 2,000 mile maiden voyage to her new home was mostly uneventful.
The bright white ferry glittered in the late afternoon sunlight as she came through the New Bedford-Fairhaven Hurricane Barrier. Passing through the gate, the vessel's senior captain, Sean O'Connor, gave the ferry horn a quick loud toot.
"She was just wonderful. She handles better than anything else we have," Captain O'Connor said. "She has twice the horsepower of the Martha's Vineyard and operates with the simplicity of the Islander."
The vessel is designed to carry more than 1,200 passengers and up to 76 vehicles. At $32 million, the Island Home is by far the most expensive project the boat line has undertaken.
For now, the vessel remains docked at the Steamship Authority maintenance facility, tied with new hawsers. She towers over the nearby SSA ferry Nantucket, which is getting serviced. On Monday evening, crews were still working inside the vessel and securing her while bitterly cold 20-degree winds came in from the north. Work has continued on the vessel through the week to ready her for service beginning next month.
After the 2,000-mile trip, Captain O'Connor, 50, of Oak Bluffs said he could allay anyone's concerns about the vessel's stability and ability to operate well in high winds and rough seas, for they encountered high winds on the way home.
"It was a great trip," he said. "The boat rides like a tank. It is just like the Islander with another 50 feet added on."
The vessel, slated to replace the 56-year-old Islander car-passenger ferry on the Vineyard run, has been under construction at VT Halter Marine's shipyards in Pascagoula since the spring of 2005.
The Island Home initially was scheduled to enter boat line service this past June. But the arrival of Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast in August 2005 badly damaged the VT Halter shipyards and delayed the completion of the vessel.
After leaving Pascagoula on Monday, Jan. 29 at 1:43 p.m., the Island Home made two trips for fuel and water. She stopped at Port Everglades, Fla. on Thursday, Feb. 1 from 4:30 to 9 a.m. and on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. in Morehead City, N.C.
This past Sunday, the Island Home encountered high winds off the New Jersey coast. Captain O'Connor said: "We had gusts to 45 to 55 knots." He said he was impressed how well the vessel handled.
The vessel spent a couple of hours Sunday night trying to anchor off New York's Rockaway Inlet while the winds blew to 52 mph, with some gusts to 58 mph. "The anchor didn't hold, it was sandy bottom," the captain said.
Captain O'Connor said the anchor brought up a tow rope when it was drawn in, but also said that the incident didn't hamper or delay the vessel.
On board for the Island Home's maiden voyage were three Steamship Authority employees: Senior Chief Engineer Bob Whelan; Larry O'Rourke, a Steamship Authority engineering representative at the shipyard; and Captain O'Connor.
Also on board were 27 employees from VT Halter Marine whose expertise covered a wide span of the vessel's functions, ranging from wiring and electronics to the engines. Captain O'Connor said VT Halter employees worked on the vessel throughout the trip, doing general cleanup and finish work, including putting in stair treads and painting.
VT Halter remains in legal possession of the vessel. Capt. David Keith, a Halter employee, was master of the vessel during the voyage.
To assure even wear for both engines during the trip, every 24 hours the vessel turned around and then continued on her way.
"We flipped ends so one engine wasn't carrying the load all the time," Captain O'Connor said. It also meant both pilot houses got used. The turn around would usually take place between 8 and 9 a.m. "We would pick a spot," the captain said.
VT Halter is supervising the final work on the vessel before transferring ownership to the Authority. For a good deal of this week, Coast Guard inspectors from the Marine Safety Office in Providence, R.I. have been on board.
Carl Walker, the Authority's director of engineering and maintenance, said a few issues still need to be addressed before Coast Guard signs off on the vessel and issue a certificate of inspection.
The turnover of ownership of the vessel from the shipyard to the Steamship Authority could take place as early as next Friday, Feb. 16, Mr. Walker said.
"It is a beautiful vessel," he said. "Operationally, it runs beautifully from the deck down to the engine room. Just now it is getting a shaving, a haircut and we'll be signing off with Halter soon."
Mr. Walker said the commissioning of the Island Home is planned for Saturday, March 3 in Vineyard Haven. The vessel will go into regular service soon after.
"Once people get used to the differences between the Islander and the new boat, they'll love it," Mr. Walker said.