By Connie Leinbach
Many Ocracoke islanders who visited the passenger ferry the Provincetown III on Tuesday were heartened.
“I’m greatly encouraged,” noted Leslie Lanier, owner of Books to Be Red, as she noted the bicycle racks on the bow.
“It’s an answer to our economic future,” said Mickey Baker, owner of Mermaid’s Folly. However, so is going back to the short route, she continued.
“I’m all for anything that brings people, here but we should not be complacent about getting back the short route,” she said. “The perfect scenario would be to have the short route with the car ferries and also the passenger ferry. We would boom.”
The Provincetown III, on its way from Tortola, Virgin Islands, to Boston, made a stop in Ocracoke on Tuesday after conducting trial runs from the Hatteras ferry dock to Silver Lake on Monday and Tuesday. NC DOT Ferry Division officials and members of the feasibility study team conducted a show-and-tell meeting in Ocracoke School gym at the same time the boat was open for the public to tour.
Massachusetts has no free ferries, and Bay State Cruises is the owner of the Provincetown III, a catamaran-style boat whose top speed is 30 knots. By contrast, the car ferries to Ocracoke have a top speed of about 8 knots, said Christopher J. Bock, superintendent of operations at Hatteras.
Provincetown III Captain John Molineaux pointed out the boat’s features and noted that Ocracoke is similar to Provincetown, Mass., where this is one of three boats that make three trips daily Boston to the Cape Cod destination from May 15 to mid-October each year.
“We get a lot of day-trippers to Provincetown,” he said.
In addition to those passengers, there are the folks going for more than a day and they haul their luggage, coolers, even bikes, onto the boat.
“There’s no limit on luggage,” he said.
While the boat is Coast Guard-approved for 149 passengers, including infants, there are 200 seats, both inside and top side. A concession stand, including a full-service bar, is on board as well.
The ride between the two Massachusetts ports is one and a half hours over 50 miles of water, 40 of which is in the open sea, Molineaux said.
The runs between Hatteras and Ocracoke took a little over one hour, Bock said.
“It was a very smooth ride,” he said.
Molineaux noted that in water where the waves are closer together, the boat can skim across the top of them, which creates the smooth ride. In weather where the waves are farther apart, the boat will go up and down in the troughs, creating a bumpier ride.
“Anything that would help our community, why not explore it as a supplement to what we already have?” noted Ann Warner, owner of Howard’s Pub, after attending the presentation.
Indeed, Ferry Division Director Ed Goodwin, who attended along with Jed Dixon, deputy director, said the division has been doing a lot of research in the last year into the different types of passenger ferries.
He stressed that the Ferry Division is working hard to eliminate the long lines at the Hatteras Ferry dock. He is not looking to eliminate car ferries, but supplementing them with, ideally, two passenger ferries.
“This kind of boat coasts about $5.2 million to build while a new car ferry is $14 to $18 million,” Goodwin said.
While the Provincetown III has a draft of six feet, one for the Pamlico Sound would have to have a shallower draft. Goodwin said that a possibility for an Ocracoke boat would be jet propulsion (as with jet skis) instead of a propeller, such as on the Provincetown III.
While the ride from Boston to Provincetown is $80 round-trip (both scheduled), Will Letchworth of Volkert Inc., the consulting company that’s doing the feasibility study, had a poster showing about a dozen other passenger ferries around the country whose prices began as low as $2.
Nothing has been decided on any of this, officials said. Many questions still have to be answered, said Tim Hass, Ferry Division spokesman.
Among the questions in the study will be parking; would people leave their cars; how much would it cost should it be state-owned, privately owned or a combination of the two; should the Ferry Division lease one for a few seasons first; or should there be year-round dredging of the inlet?
Hass thought that 75 to 100 people visited the boat on Tuesday and about 30 attended the presentation in the school gym. About 30 people toured the boat in Hatteras on Monday.
“Everyone has a lot of good questions that the study will answer,” he said. “Most are interested in keeping an open mind about it.”
In addition, Beverly Paul, executive director of Hyde County Transit, a nonprofit that provides small-bus transportation for Ocracoke residents to go up the beach every Tuesday, is looking at how to move people around the village once they would get here via a passenger ferry.
Jennifer Mason, owner of Corkey’s Store, after touring the boat was impressed.
“It’s pretty cool,” she said.
Star Ely, an Ocracoke eighth-grader with Mason, agreed.
“It could bring more tourism,” she said.
Letchworth said on-board surveying of Hatteras ferry passengers will begin June 8 and he expects to have recommendations in late August to share with islanders.
He encouraged islanders to weigh in on the subject on the study’s website, which is http://go.ncsu.edu/2015passengerferrystudy .