An Hour to New Bedford, Starting June 24


MAMARONECK, N.Y. - The next big thing in Island water transportation stands three decks high in the shed. The blocklike components of her stern face a rocky harbor and the morning sun. Her twin hulls knife their way off into darkness. The aluminum hull of the Whaling City Express, under construction at the Derecktor Shipyard here at the western end of Long Island Sound, will be launched tomorrow. With her maiden arrival in Oak Bluffs on the morning of June 24, an interesting experiment begins:

Can year-round passenger ferry service between the city of New Bedford and the Island of Martha's Vineyard make it after all these years?

Year-round service came to an end when a tall-stack steamboat sailed from New Bedford for the last time on New Year's Eve, 1960. With the final departure of the Nobska on that night, an unwanted service, subsidized largely by the Islands, gave way to the convenience of interstates and a ferry sailing into and out of the nearby port of Woods Hole. Year-round service returns this summer as a private venture that must stand on its own, a service riding on twin pontoons that can do 30 knots and make the trip in one hour flat.

The enterprise is predicated on the idea that traveling and parking by way of the Cape has grown so crowded and disconnected that a sufficient number of Vineyarders and visitors will now pay considerably more to travel and park by way of New Bedford. The theory is that for many of these travelers, New Bedford will wind up being a quicker, more convenient and more comfortable way to go all year long - and thus worth a ticket priced more than three times as much as the cost of a conventional Steamship Authority ferry out of Woods Hole.

The company is also banking on the creation of a nearly seamless public transportation system on both sides of the water.

"We think that there is an opportunity in the fast ferry business," says Andrew P. Langlois, vice chairman and chief financial officer of New England Fast Ferry Co., builders and operators of the Whaling City Express. "If you look around at the congestion on the highways, there's a lot of interest in seeing if you can find and create transportation networks and services to allow people to get to their destinations without having to take their cars on the road. And we think that if you have a year-round, reliable service, you develop a different relationship, I think, with your clients, your customers."

The gamble is not a sure thing, Mr. Langlois acknowledges after a recent tour of the ferry. The Whaling City Express is the first of two high-speed vessels to be designed and built for the service, an investment of up to $8 million for the ferries alone. Mr. Langlois says that New England Fast Ferry wants to create a kind of seagoing commuter service – a service whose main virtues, after safety, are frequency, speed and comfort. Travelers from the Island and all points on the mainland will find the line convenient in summer, he says, and Vineyarders will want to shop in and around New Bedford in winter, much as they do now in Falmouth and Hyannis.

New Bedford officials certainly hope so. For seven years, the city strove mightily in the legislature and the courts to establish service of this kind - at the very least - reclaiming a lost seat on the Steamship Authority board of governors along the way. City officials hope that Vineyarders - many of whom only know New Bedford as a blur as they hurtle by on I-195 - will grow increasingly interested in its malls, car dealerships, restaurants, museums, universities, parking lots, garages and unfettered, bridgeless, closer links to Boston, Providence and beyond.

The Whaling City Express will make five round trips a day in summer, fall and spring (six on weekends), and three in winter (four on weekends). This year the boat will dock in Oak Bluffs in summer and Vineyard Haven in winter. With the arrival of the Martha's Vineyard Express next year, the summer schedule will double, offering departures roughly every 90 minutes, and summer landings will alternate between Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven.

The cost per passenger is $20 each way, as opposed to $6 each way on the Steamship Authority boats out of Woods Hole. A sliding fraction of the ticket price, based on ridership, will pay the Steamship Authority for the license to operate. (The Portuguese Princess, a conventional passenger ferry subsidized by the authority to the tune of $478,000 over two summer seasons, will be run by New Bedford Traditional Ferry, a sister company to New England Fast Ferry, starting Memorial weekend. The cost is $12 each way for a two-hour trip.)

"Our view is, this is not a captive audience to us," Mr. Langlois says of the fast ferry service. "Because people can go another way for less. We have to have the numbers we're talking about" - making a profit in season, and breaking even at least in winter - "because the economics have got to work; this is a commercial, private venture, and it's got to pay for itself. We pushed the numbers very hard for what makes economic sense, and we've invested between three and four million dollars per boat to do this, and I think that you've seen this is a good quality boat that we're building."

For a design, the company turned to Crowther of Sydney, Australia, which builds catamaran ferries serving in the thunderous breezes and breaking seas of western Australia, as well as the environmentally protected rivers in Tasmania. "So it had two characteristics that were particularly attractive to us," Mr. Langlois says. "One was the stability in difficult sea conditions, and the second was the environmentally friendly characteristics on the wake wash." The new boats have propellers, not jet propulsion, which was reviled for the noise and wake it created when the high-speed ferries Sassacus and Tatobam ran into Vineyard Haven from New London and New York from 1998 to 2000.

New England Fast Ferry sent Crowther a year's worth of sea and weather data from the No. 6 buoy in Buzzards Bay. The buoy lies on the route to Quicks Hole, the passage into Vineyard Sound that the ferries will most often use. Crowther adapted the Australian design into what New England Fast Ferry calls the Vineyard 95 - a light, fast boat, 95 feet overall, displacing just 85 tons, driven by twin Detroit Diesel engines delivering 2,800 horsepower, with a cruising speed of 29 knots. The Whaling City Express will be able to carry 149 passengers on two decks, the upper one partially open, and 16 bicycles on the rake of her bow. It has stabilizers in the stern to quiet the ride, and reinforced stems in the bow to break through ice.

For those accustomed to the passenger ferry Schamonchi, which retired last summer after 25 years of seasonal service out of New Bedford, the advent of the fast ferry brings other changes to the route.

The terminal in New Bedford moves from Billy Woods Wharf, about two miles east of downtown, to the State Pier in the heart of the city. The Whale's Tooth Parking Lot - a new sea of asphalt lying between Route 18 and the harbor - will soon open about half a mile from the ferry terminal. Shuttle buses will carry riders to the ferries from this lot, as well as a covered downtown parking garage and the city bus station. The goal, Mr. Langlois says, is to build a coordinated public transportation system linking the Vineyard with New Bedford and cities to the north and west.

"We're working with the authority, we're working with people on the Vineyard," Mr. Langlois says. "We've also talked to the bus lines about matching up and having them come by the New Bedford terminal so that if somebody wants to come across and go to Logan, or wants to come across and go to Green Airport [in Providence], or they want to go to downtown Providence, or they want to go out to the malls in Dartmouth, they can. We've tried to get those lined up and coordinated. They are all interested. They've agreed to put stops on. That seems to be coming together. We'll work out whatever bugs there are. It's still a work in progress."

Two weeks ago, the Whaling City Express stood on her aluminum legs in the Derecktor shed at Mamaroneck. Airline-style seats, wrapped in plastic, were stationed here and there in the main passenger cabin. Mr. Langlois and James A. Barker, construction manager of the project, inspected the tables that will line the center section of the cabin: Even they are made of honeycombed aluminum, covered by a Formica laminate, to save weight. In the starboard engine room, shipwrights lined a cavity with insulation – a sandwich of fiberglass, aluminum foil, a sheet of lead, more fiberglass and a cover to hold the sandwich together.

The pontoons and the connecting main deck were built in Seattle by Kvichak Marine Industries and carried by trailer truck to Mamaroneck in the middle of February. The superstructure was built by the Derecktor shipyard in Bridgeport and barged over to Mamaroneck at the same time. Then the Whaling City Express, designed in Australia and preassembled in two huge parts on opposite coasts in the United States, was put together in New York. "Which shows that it can be done," Mr. Langlois says. "There was a lot of attention paid to the dimensions on that. Measure many times, cut once."