Finally, It's Here (Almost)

Rob Temple
Finally, It's Here (Almost)
Crystal Canterbury

The passenger ferry welcomed the curious aboard for a meet and greet. 

The long-awaited passenger-only ferry from Hatteras arrived on Ocracoke on May 15 for a public introduction and open house hosted by Jed Dixon, deputy director of the NCDOT Ferry Division.

The passenger-only ferry will provide service from the Hatteras ferry dock directly to Silver Lake in Ocracoke Village.  Coupled with a free tram service circulating through the village, the new, faster vessel will allow pedestrians and bicyclists, for a small fee, to go from their parked vehicles on Hatteras straight to the heart of Ocracoke in 70 minutes, eliminating the long hot wait in line for the car ferries.

Construction of an NCDOT-owned passenger ferry got started in Jacksonville, N.C. a couple of years ago but ran into various problems that repeatedly delayed completion. Meanwhile, the division has arranged to lease one of the Seastreak catamarans which operate in New Jersey, New York and New England.

The 95’ Martha’s Vineyard Express (soon to be given a more N.C.-appropriate name) is somewhat larger than the vessel being constructed. She carries 149 passengers, draws a little over 6’ and cruises at 27 miles per hour.

Finally, It's Here (Almost)
Crystal Canterbury

At the public meeting the boat’s captain, an alert young man introduced to us as Brandon, explained that nothing stops the vessel short of hurricanes and solid ice. Attendees of the gathering had a lot of questions, first and foremost of which was “How soon will she go into operation?”  While Jed kept emphasizing that it would be “soon” he was careful not to commit to a date. There remain a few details to be taken care of such as Coast Guard approval of the route and other matters which Jed, a former ferry captain, said were “out of my wheelhouse." 

The new vessel, which has been leased through Labor Day for $800,000, is fully equipped with WiFi, and large screen TVs, some of which will feature an Ocracoke video produced by the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association.  

As always, Dixon explained, safety is the first concern of the division so, while the vessel will be operated by experienced Seastreak crew, they will be accompanied on each trip by seasoned N.C. ferry personnel familiar with the local waters. The draft of the vessel should not be a problem since its route is confined to dredged channels (Big Foot Slough and Rollinson) and deep open sound waters. The narrow ferry channel at the Hatteras end of the route will be avoided except for the last few yards before the dock. The initial plan is for three round trips daily beginning with a departure from Hatteras at 9 a.m. and ending with a departure from Ocracoke at 7 p.m. For passengers who might wish to return later, a bus may be used to transport them to the South Dock (at the north end of Ocracoke) where the larger “river class” ferries with ample passenger seating will take them back to Hatteras.

On some of its routes up north, Seastreak provides full bar service so some thirsty folks in the Wednesday gathering asked what the chances of that are for this route. The answer was that, at least for now, our laws will only allow the service of snacks and non-alcoholic beverages. That concession will be run by the Seastreak crew.

The catamaran has ample luggage space as well as bike racks and will soon provide accommodation for rack cards promoting local businesses.

Ferry Division Director Harold Thomas (left) and Deputy Director Jed Dixon were on board to answer questions. (Check out those comfy seats!)
Ferry Division Director Harold Thomas (left) and Deputy Director Jed Dixon were on board to answer questions. (Check out those comfy seats!)

Jed announced that a new, double-ended river class ferry Rodanthe is expected to go into service next week with two others under construction in Louisiana.

Discussions of a passenger-only ferry began as far back as 2014, when then ferry division director Ed Goodwin asked for a feasibility study on the concept. (You can read our first article about it here.)

When hurricanes and shoaling reconfigured the sand bars in and around Hatteras Inlet over eight years ago, the traditional “short route” the ferries had always used to cross between Hatteras and Ocracoke became unnavigable. Repeated efforts to dredge the 35-minute channel were unsuccessful and in December 2013 the ferry division abandoned the route in favor of a safer, but much longer one farther out into the sound. This extended the crossing time to 60 to 75 minutes and resulted in a 20% reduction in the number of people coming to Ocracoke via Hatteras. The visitors who ride the Hatteras ferry are primarily "daytrippers" and are a significant part of Ocracoke's economy, especially for island shops and restaurants.

Responsive to the concerns of Ocracoke residents and business owners, the ferry division came up with a plan to remedy the situation by adding the passenger-only ferry service. 

At Wednesday's meeting, those in attendance showed appreciation for Jed and the ferry division's efforts. 




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