Update: passenger ferry service between Hatteras and Ocracoke will begin May 20. For more information, click here.
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By Peter Vankevich and Connie Leinbach
When Harold Thomas and Jed Dixon, the top two officials of the N.C. Ferry Division, were invited to Wednesday’s Ocracoke Civic & Business Association meeting for a briefing on the status of the beleaguered passenger ferry service, there could not have been a better show-and-tell opportunity.
“How about we hold the meeting on the ‘Martha’s Vineyard Express?’” Dixon asked Helena Stevens, OCBA executive director on Tuesday.
He was talking about the passenger ferry that the NCDOT is renting from Seastreak, a company that operates ferry service in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island, for Ocracoke’s busy tourist season.
The rental happened after a new passenger ferry, under construction since 2017, would not be available this year after also missing its debut last year.
John A. Torbett (R-Gaston), who is chair of the House Transportation Appropriations Committee, during budget meetings in early April told the Observer that James Trogden, DOT Secretary, said he would pay for leasing a passenger ferry for Ocracoke out of his budget.
On Wednesday, Dixon told the dozen or so islanders inside the main cabin that the contract with Seastreak has been signed and service should begin in several days–after a “new-to-zone” Coast Guard inspection passes and a few other things that need to happen before it gets final approval.
“We want to check all the boxes,” Dixon said about the loose ends.
Safety is the highest priority, he said, noting that a few channel markers were added to the route in Hatteras after some test runs.
Thomas said the Governor’s office, Secretary of Transportation, the General Assembly and the NC Department of Transportation all deserve a shout out for the work they did, especially in the past 60 days.
The Vineyard will have two crew from Seastreak and two or three Ferry Division workers.
“Seastreak has a great reputation,” Dixon said. “We have a lot to learn ourselves and having these guys on board will be a good thing.”
Thomas said a big shout out should go to Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, the General Assembly and the Secretary of Transportation in getting this service running despite construction delays.
The initial plan is for three runs per day with each trip estimated to be about a one-hour trip: From Hatteras at 9 a.m., 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. , and from Ocracoke at 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Tickets can be one way and round trips can be on different days, but Dixon cautioned that overnight parking at the Hatteras dock area will be limited to 10 out of the 100 spaces.
In addition to free WiFi, the Vineyard, which will be renamed for this season, has 149 seats, bike racks, luggage storage, will allow pets and will have some concessions but no alcohol service.
The free tram service provided by Hyde County to be used in conjunction with this ferry is expected to begin May 19 (Updated: start date is May 20), a week before the passenger ferry, said Bill Rich, former Hyde County manager who continues to work on this project.
Brandon Adams, 25, one of the captains and who grew up around boats in Cape May, New Jersey, chimed in. He said this boat, built in 2005, has never had any major mechanical breakdowns or issues.
And weather conditions where the Vineyard typically runs up north can be just as bad as Ocracoke, he said.
“It reminds me of home,” Adams said about the Pamlico Sound, “though a bit shallower.”
Dixon said the Vineyard and the car ferries won’t run in the same water highway at Hatteras. The passenger ferry will go straight out from Hatteras into the Rollinson Channel and then into the Pamlico Sound for the run to Ocracoke.
Tom Pahl, Ocracoke’s county commissioner, said he appreciated the Ferry Division’s efforts in getting this rental boat in light of the problems building the Ocracoke Express.
The idea of adding a passenger-only boat to the busiest Hatteras-Ocracoke run came about in 2015 after the short route was closed due to shoaling and the long route across the Hatteras Inlet was officially sanctioned. This one-hour car ferry ride has resulted in fewer runs between islands and therefore fewer cars and day-trippers journeying to the island.
“Ocracoke businesses lost a lot,” Pahl said. “People on the island and the Ferry Division initiated that discussion. This boat wouldn’t be here if not for the Ferry Division wanting to help Ocracoke solve this problem. It’s not a problem of the Ferry Division’s making but is as a result of the inlet silting in.”
Engineers have noted that, under current circumstances, the short route will not be opening up any time soon.
“The purpose of this boat is to reduce the wait time for those cars sitting there waiting for the car ferry,” Pahl said. “The Ferry Division stuck to it and got us to this point.”
It might be hard for some to visualize a ferry on a roller coaster track, but that is one way to describe the past couple of years.
In May 2017 the N.C. Department of Transportation awarded a $4.15 million contract to Armstrong Marine Inc., located Hubert near Swansboro, for construction of a 98-passenger catamaran-style ferry.
Much of the total $9 million project funding came from a Federal Lands Access Program grant, which also covered infrastructure improvements at Hatteras and Ocracoke needed to accommodate ferry passengers.
Under the terms of the contract, Armstrong Marine was expected to deliver the new ferry, named “Ocracoke Express,” by April 2018. But the Ferry Division announced around that time that the new boat was taking longer to build and would not be operational for the 2018 tourist season.
Tim Hass, spokesman for the Ferry Division, said in a Raleigh “News & Observer” story at that time that the ship builder had trouble finding enough skilled workers, especially certified marine welders.
More bad news struck this year.
In March, the Ferry Division announced that work on the vessel stopped Feb. 19 after a report from Elliott Bay Design Group, Seattle, Wash., who designed it, identified “several issues with the construction, among which were many of the aluminum welds. A follow-up Coast Guard inspection confirmed these issues,” Hass said.
At that time, it looked like another tourist season would come and go without it.
But then Torbett in April revealed that transportation officials were looking into alternatives for Ocracoke and a passenger ferry located in New Jersey was available. He said the rental will cost $867,000, including the crew but not fuel.
Dixon on Wednesday said that work is continuing on the “Ocracoke Express,” without providing details.
In addition, he said the Ferry Division is building three more river-class ferries for the Hatteras Ocracoke run. These boats will hold more cars. One, named “The Rodanthe” will come online in early June.
“The DOT is working hard to maintain your way of life,” Dixon said. “There’s a lot of activity.”