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

Oct 1, 2013 04:51 PM

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“This area we’re going through here — Plum Gut — is a major recreational fishing area,” Spector noted. “It has all kinds of boats and we have to run the ferry through them. Most of the time it’s not a problem and everybody’s very cooperative. But if there’s fog, it can be a little bit of a challenge. At night we use the night-vision camera to find the lobster pots.

“But that’s in the summertime. In the wintertime, it’s just us.”

Sea Jet’s captain, Norm Spector, left, gives commands as helmsman Tyler Richards steers the 122-foot ferry in Long Island Sound. Mate Kevin Murphy also stands watch.

Aside from the vessel traffic, the hydrodynamics can be treacherous because it’s a narrow strait where seawater pours in and out of the sound. On this day, the crew sailed through a 4-knot crosscurrent, aided by the modern Caterpillar engines and a new ride control system that helps stabilize the vessel.

“What you have here is a really strong current,” the master said. “All the water from Long Island Sound flows through here and Plum Gut and The Race, and you can get 5-knot currents. You can get wind against the current, so I’ve seen 8- to 10-foot standing waves in Plum Gut.”

In the engineer’s control room, the chief engineer, Dick Donovan, praised his new Caterpillars while monitoring the vessel’s bilge alarms, oil pressure, temperature, fuel level and video from the engine compartment. The engines replaced an aging set of Deutz 620s, which had maintenance issues and their top speed was only 26 to 28 knots.

“We had a lot of mechanical problems, and it was hard to get parts,” Donovan said. “It was a state of constant repairs. Piston failures were very common, heads, a myriad of things and a constant battle.”

The new Cats are “a big improvement — probably one-tenth of the labor that the other engines required,” he said. “They’re made for what we do — short run, pull ‘em down and a short run back.”

Almost all of Cross Sound’s ferries have been repowered since 2009, and the installation of Tier 2 engines has made the fleet cleaner and greener as well as faster and more efficient. All of the refits were done at the company’s own shipyard, Thames Shipyard & Repair Co., just upriver in New London. The company, controlled for three generations by the Wronowski family, also owns nearby Thames Towboat Co.

“One of the things that helped us do the repowering is we have our own full-service shipyard that’s integral to our operation,” said Adam Wronowski, vice president. “My grandfather’s thought was, if you can’t fix it yourself, you shouldn’t be using it.”

“Of the nine ferries we have, we’ve had eight of them out of the water (and) had the engines out to replace them or refurbish them,” he said. “We don’t have two vessels that are alike, so it’s really what fits the vessel best. We’re happy with the Cats on the Sea Jet and we’re just as happy with the EMD engines on the Susan Anne.”

Sea Jet’s chief engineer, Dick Donovan, monitors the vessel’s systems from the engineer’s control room. Electronic displays, video and alarms provide early warning if something goes wrong with fuel, oil levels, pressure, temperature, gears or hydraulics.

Susan Anne, a 49-year-old 250-foot car ferry, was equipped with General Motors Electro-Motive Diesel engines that did not need to be replaced. Instead, an upgrade kit was available to modernize the existing engines and reduce emissions.

“It went from Tier zero to Tier 2 without having to take the engine out of the vessel. It’s great because you’ve got a good, solid piece of equipment there, and instead of taking it all out you can do an upgrade,” Wronowski said. “Besides being much cleaner and greener, it’s faster and the ride is smoother and it is quieter. That gave the ferry a new lease on life.”

Aboard the 250-foot car ferry Mary Ellen, engineer Gary Moore takes care of a pair of Caterpillar 3516s, which were installed in 2010.

“This business is tough on the engines, because it’s start-and-stop,” Moore said of the one hour, 20 minute auto ferry crossing time at 15 knots.

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