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Captains handle speed with finesse on fast ferry to Nantucket

Feb 27, 2017 12:04 PM
Iyanough takes it easy near port but can motor at 38 knots.

Iyanough takes it easy near port but can motor at 38 knots.

M/V Iyanough, a fast ferry that operates on the 26-mile run between Cape Cod and the island of Nantucket, in some ways resembles a high-performance sports car and in other ways a city bus.

This 154-foot aluminum catamaran is powered by four MTU 12V 4000 engines that generate a total of 9,400 horsepower, providing its Hamilton waterjets enough thrust to propel the boat at up to 38 knots.

John Burke, senior chief engineer with the Woods Hole, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Steamship Authority, the ferry’s operator, said Iyanough is a lot like a Porsche. The boat’s defining characteristics, he said, include “high speed, high performance.”

Iyanough takes an hour to make its run. That compares with 2 hours and 15 minutes for a conventional ferry.

Just being fast is not enough. The boat also has to be a reliable mover of large numbers of people between the mainland and the island. And it has proven itself up to that task as well, carrying just under 350,000 passengers during 2015 on a challenging route and in the course of a long operating season that starts in April and ends in early January.

In the high season that begins in mid-May and continues through mid-October, the boat makes five round trips per day. During the rest of its operational year, it makes four round trips daily.

Following the hour-long run from Hyannis, Mass., on Cape Cod, to Nantucket, the ferry typically spends just 15 minutes on the island before heading back to the mainland. There, the turnaround time is usually a half-hour. Maintaining that tight schedule is no small feat, but it is something the passengers depend on.

Capt. Karl Riddar guides the ferry away from the dock in Hyannis.

“It’s a very efficient operation,” said Capt. Charles G. Gifford, who as port captain for the Steamship Authority oversees the agency’s ferry operations between Cape Cod and the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.

On an overcast morning in late September 2016, Iyanough lay in its berth in Hyannis readying for its first run of the day. Burke was on hand to ride the boat and monitor its systems. Mostly he works on the boat when it is at the dock after its last voyage of the day. He does the maintenance then to ensure that the boat will be fit for duty when service resumes the following morning.

Once a week, however, he rides the boat to look for problems, such as small leaks, that might not otherwise be apparent. “Sometimes you don’t detect these leaks until you have gone up to full power. That’s when you’ll see it,” he said.

Burke, who is a 1990 graduate of Massachusetts Maritime Academy, described Iyanough as a high-maintenance vessel. “That’s the nature of the beast,” he said, because of its high speed, multiple engines and its punishing schedule.

Despite the demands of the operation, the vessel has proven to be quite dependable since it was delivered by its builder, Gladding-Hearn Shipbuilding, in 2007. The waterjets, potentially the weak link in a fast ferry, have been notably good performers. “They’ve been pretty bulletproof,” Burke said.

Each year the ferry is taken out of service in early January and does not resume operation until April. That’s the time when passenger demand is lowest. It is also the time when the threat of ice — a significant issue for a high-speed vessel with an aluminum hull — is greatest. The Steamship Authority takes advantage of that time to conduct major maintenance and repairs.

During 2016, the work included replacing the 12 cylinder heads and turbochargers on each of the four engines.

Iyanough meets the 235-foot M/V Eagle as the fast ferry makes its way out the Hyannis channels.

Another major project involved the expansion of the cooling system. Although the boat is designed to have a top speed of 38 knots, before that work was done the engines had a tendency to overheat at higher speeds.

“We get alarms if we go too fast,” Burke said.

By adding additional cooling plates, the upgrade has increased the efficiency of the cooling system, thereby allowing the ferry to operate closer to its top speed without setting off engine alarms.

The nozzles on the waterjets were also replaced. The work required “pulling the whole tail ends of the jets off,” Burke said.

Given the boat’s high speed and the relentless demands of the schedule, this annual dry-docking helps the boat avoid interruptions once it returns to service in the spring. “We’ve got to maintain reliability under those conditions” of high demand and high performance, he said.

Iyanough’s engines are located in the catamaran’s hulls, with two port engines and two starboard ones. The engine spaces are not manned. Since Burke does not normally ride along, the task of monitoring the engines falls to the navigation crew on the bridge.

The ferry has a crew of six: the captain, pilot (mate) and four deck hands. On the bridge on this September morning preparing for the first crossing of the day were Capt. Karl Riddar and pilot Brian McNamarra. Riding along were Gifford and Burke.

Senior chief engineer John Burke kneels next to two of Iyanough’s four Hamilton waterjets.

The winds were modest and the seas were calm. So the problems facing the crew would be of a routine nature. But on a boat moving at more than 30 knots, even routine conditions require a high degree of alertness and skill.

“When you are moving along at 32 to 33 knots, things develop very quickly,” Riddar said. “You’ve got to keep your head in the game the whole time you’re up here.”

Riddar has been working for the Steamship Authority for 25 years. A hawsepiper, he comes from a deep-sea background. His previous jobs included working as an able seaman and boatswain for Keystone Shipping and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

At 0815, Riddar took his position at the controls on the starboard side of the bridge, while McNamarra kept an eye out to port. Under the boat’s operational procedures, only the captain is allowed to maneuver the ferry to and from the dock. The pilot can steer, but only when the boat is out on Nantucket Sound.

The captain is required to have a 1,600-ton master’s license. The pilot must have a 1,600-ton mate’s license with a first class pilot endorsement for the route. Even though it’s not required by the Coast Guard, Iyanough’s captains also have pilot endorsements.

“We all have pilotage for local waters,” Riddar said.

At 0817 Iyanough began slowly backing out of its berth. Riddar soon had the ferry out into the channel and headed toward Nantucket Sound.

The ferry is powered by four MTU 12V 4000 engines generating a total of 9,400 horsepower.

The ferry is capable of going fast, but at both ends of the route it operates in channels where its speed is restricted to 6 knots. Obviously, it needs to move slowly in these congested waters to avoid collisions and to stay within the confines of the channels. The other reason is to prevent its wake from disturbing other boats or causing damage along the shoreline.

Consequently, on the 60-minute crossing, Iyanough spends 27 minutes moving at low speed in channels and 33 minutes at its 30-plus-knot service speed.

As Riddar guided the ferry past the jetties that mark the entrance to Hyannis, it encountered M/V Eagle, a 235-foot conventional Steamship Authority ferry returning from Nantucket.

Riddar, who works on both the conventional ferries and the fast ferry, spent much of the summer aboard Eagle, but he particularly enjoys his time on Iyanough. “It’s a refreshing change,” he said.

Iyanough is the Steamship Authority’s only fast ferry now, but there were two predecessors.

“This boat is a fantastic upgrade” from those earlier boats, Riddar said. “The boat is extremely nimble. It will do whatever you want it to.”

On days like this, when wind and waves would not be an issue, the main challenge would be maintaining a safe distance from other vessels.

Iyanough’s jet wash reflects its speed

The southern shore of Cape Cod trends from the southwest to the northeast. The ferry route runs northwest to southeast. That means most vessel encounters are crossing situations. While recreational boats are an issue while the ferry is approaching or leaving the docks, once out in the sound, commercial fishing vessels are the main concern.

“I think most of the fishing fleet has a pretty good idea of the Rules of the Road,” Riddar said. But, he cautioned, “some skippers have little regard for the rules. We try to plan accordingly. We are always vigilant so we don’t get caught with our pants down.”

Iyanough’s speed and maneuverability give it a distinct advantage when it comes to avoiding vessels whose intentions may not be perfectly clear. The steersman can simply take the ferry around the other boat’s stern to avoid even a hint of trouble.

“This boat can pretty much go around anything pretty quickly,” Riddar said.

Safety is clearly the number-one priority of the crew. However, passenger comfort is also very important. The vessel is equipped with a computerized ride-control system. The system has metal plates deployed from the transom that diminish the rocking and pitching.

“It pulls the bow down and steadies the boat,” Riddar said.

The flood tide along the south shore of Cape Cod runs from west to east. When the wind is out of the northeast and the tide and the wind are opposing each other, the seas can become rough. “We might have 20 minutes of a really poor ride where we need to make adjustments,” Riddar said. Those can include tacking, since the boat tends to ride best heading into or with the wind.

Iyanough can make the run to Nantucket 75 minutes faster than a conventional ferry.

Even with the interceptors, there are definite limits to the wind and seas in which the boat can operate. “Six-foot seas for passengers are not good,” Riddar said.

“You have to think about quitting at 5 feet,” added McNamarra. Also a hawsepiper, he has been with the Steamship Authority for 29 years, working his way up from ordinary seaman to pilot. “I started here and never left,” he said.

High winds are also an issue on the route. The boat’s lightweight aluminum structure helps it to go fast, but it also makes the boat much more susceptible to the wind when navigating at low speed.

“You take the power off, you are at the mercy of the wind,” Riddar explained. The boat then tends to behave like “an empty can on the water.”  
That’s a particular issue when docking because of the vulnerability of the aluminum hulls. “You don’t want to tap the dolphins,” Riddar said. “In a lot of wind, maneuvering around the dock can be a challenge.”

This all means that reliability — staying on schedule or even making the trip at all — can be in tension with concerns for safety and passenger comfort.

Management has the authority to cancel any voyage, but even in the absence of such an order, the master has the right to keep the boat at the dock if he or she judges conditions to be too poor.

“We try to maintain schedule. Consistency is important in this business. We want to run as often as possible,” Riddar said, but never at the expense of safety or rider comfort.

And so, at 0920, Riddar had Iyanough safely secured to its berth on Nantucket and 219 passengers began disembarking. Just 10 minutes later, 144 new passengers would be on board, ready for a fast, comfortable and safe ride back to the mainland.

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