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Repowered Long Island ferries take on weather, seaweed, The Race

Oct 1, 2013 04:51 PM
The 260-foot car ferry Mary Ellen, backing upon final approach to its landing at New London, Conn.

The 260-foot car ferry Mary Ellen, backing upon final approach to its landing at New London, Conn.

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A few minutes into a voyage out of Connecticut’s Thames River toward the North Fork of Long Island, Capt. Norm Spector commands helmsman Tyler Richards to maintain a course for fast ferry Sea Jet’s transit of Long Island Sound.

Using visual landmarks, the men guide the Cross Sound Ferry Services vessel through areas in which they may encounter various hazards including challenging currents, recreational vessels and other commercial traffic.

“We always have at least two people in the wheelhouse,” Spector said. “The mate’s usually up here when we’re underway. In good weather we use a helmsman. It frees me up to do some plotting on the radar — and it’s an extra set of eyes.”

The fast ferry Sea Jet, a wave-piercing catamaran.

The intense watchkeeping can be vital to safety. That’s because the 122-foot Sea Jet motors through the sound a little faster than it used to. The 5,000-hp wave-penetrating catamaran is one of eight Cross Sound Ferry vessels that have been repowered in recent years. With a new pair of D-rated Caterpillar 3512 engines, Sea Jet manages a cruising speed of 30 to 32 knots.

The company’s New London-based fleet of passenger and car ferries are workhorses of maritime transit across the Long Island and Block Island sounds. The boats ferry casino-goers, traveling salesmen, agricultural produce and other freight from Long Island to Connecticut and tourists from New England to the North Fork and Block Island.

Mary Ellen engineer Gary Moore with a Caterpillar 3516B.

Operating under the marketing slogan “Cross Sound or Cross Your Fingers,” the vessels promise an efficient, relaxing water link that is a sanctuary for travelers who otherwise would endure the headaches of driving all the way across Long Island to New York City and up through southern Connecticut on highways notorious for gridlock.

Spector and his officers, however, must be mindful of a different type of traffic as they crisscross Long Island Sound.

“We have recreation boats from the Thames River and the Connecticut River. We see a lot of commercial traffic in some deep-draft ships to New Haven and Bridgeport and Riverhead Platform and some tugs and barges,” the captain said.

On a summer Friday, as Sea Jet approached a channel near the sound’s easternmost end, the master and mate kept a keen eye out for small pleasure craft. With clear visibility, the crew concluded that it must not be a very good time to fish for striped bass or togs that morning, because not many boats were present.

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