Days before NYC Ferry by Hornblower started its public service with new 150-passenger boats on May 1, a much bigger San Francisco Bay commuter ferry brought to New York by Hornblower was disabled in a mishap – right after its Coast Guard inspection and documentation.
As the NYC Ferry struggled with long lines, crowded boats and delays, the Zelinsky – a 400-passenger fast catamaran that was a familiar sight to California commuters for 30 years – remained hauled out at a Hudson River shipyard.
In less than two months NYC Ferry surpassed the 500,000-passenger mark. But that success has been painful, with customer complaints about crowds and delays – and skeptics contending planners should have foreseen the demand. There will be more pressure on the region's ferry operators public and private, with the start of massive repairs to New York's Penn Station this week and a forecasted "summer of hell" for rail commuters.
With its own new fleet of 20 boats still under construction, the city is leasing boats from other ferry operators to handle summer crowds – at a reported cost of $485,000 – and planning to size up the last three boats in its order to 250 passengers for delivery in early 2018.
The 86.4’x31.2’x7’ Zelinsky potentially could have been a backup to help handle the crowds. Built in 1986 as the Dolphin by Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, Freeland, Wash., the vessel was put up for sale in March 2016 by the Blue & Gold Fleet, which operates in Hornblower’s hometown of San Francisco.
The ferry was used for commuter service on its Tiburon route, and had been renamed in 1997 for Edward Zelinsky, a local civic benefactor and maritime history buff who donated land for the town park and ferry landing.
Last year Blue & Gold operators told local news media the boat was nearing the end of its useful life, as the public Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) was beginning its own expansion of commuter services.
Sold through the Pinnacle Marine Corp. brokerage, Stoddard, Wisc., the Zelinsky was advertised as being in good condition. Powered by two Caterpillar 3512 engines each turning 1,950 hp at 1,800 rpm, with about 7,400 hours since a 2010 overhaul, the Zelinsky was driven by 59”x54” stainless steel propellers on 6” Aquamet 22 shafts, for a top speed of 26 knots.
Coast Guard records show the vessel was newly documented April 26, 2017 to Hornblower Metro Fleet LLC, San Francisco, and received a new certificate of inspection April 27.
On April 28, the day after its COI was issued, the Zelinsky was near New York’s Coney Island with five crewmembers on board when it struck a submerged object, according to a Coast Guard incident report.
Upon being alerted around 6 p.m. that Friday, Coast Guard Sector New York dispatched two small boat crews. The Zelinsky had damage to the lazerette of its port side hull, and the crews assisted with five dewatering pumps.
The Coast Guard was on the scene until around 11 p.m. that night, when the Zelinsky was taken under tow and north up the Hudson River, where its last Automatic Identification System(AIS) position was reported past midnight on April 29 just north of Yonkers, N.Y.
At the North River Shipyard in Nyack, the Zelinsky was still hauled out in late June, surrounded by work ladders and a tarp draped where its port side propeller and rudder had been removed.
The city Economic Development Corporation, which planned and oversees the NYC Ferry system, referred questions about the Zelinsky to Hornblower. In a brief statement Tuesday, the company said work is continuing on the vessel.
"Over the last ten years, Hornblower has brought vessels into New York Harbor to support our wide range of business operations in New York. One of those vessels includes the Zelinsky, which was acquired last year for that same purpose," the company said. "In addition, we saw an opportunity to perform some upgrades and other renovation work on the vessel, which is close to completion as we speak.”
The vessel's ultimate use, whether pitching in with the NYC Ferry, or as an addition to Hornblower's other touring and dinner cruise operations around the city, appears to be undecided.
Meanwhile, private ferry operator NY Waterway is providing two 400-passenger monohull ferries to assist NYC Ferry with weekend crowds on East River routes, under a lease reported by the New York Times to cost $485,000. Two of the company’s 150-passenger boats are also pitching in for the weekday schedules.
Those lease arrangements through September will take some pressure off when the summer tourist crowds are in town, but the bigger NY Waterway boats will be unavailable on three weekends when they are already committed for special events.
Demand continues to grow. Last week the Economic Development Corporation reported ridership on the South Brooklyn route reached 83,500 in its first month, far beyond the 50,000 originally projected.
The Fourth of July weekend holiday brought big crowds to the boats, and customer complaints about hour-long waits and crowded boats. The Rockaway route to the city’s ocean beaches in Queens was especially stressed with customers heading out in fine summer weather. The NYC Ferry team uses social media such as Twitter to communicate with riders, and they were kept busy fielding complaints and updating information.
The city’s continuing problems with rail transit are putting more pressure on the ferries too, with weekday commuters heading to the waterfront to avoid the most troubled subway lines.
At the end of June Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared an emergency for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, making an additional $1 billion available and aiming to streamline procurement and bidding to speed repairs and capital improvements.
At New York Penn Station, Amtrak has prepared for intensive track rebuilding at the region’s commuter hub. Commuters and their employers are braced for reduced train service and schedules starting Monday.
NY Waterway is working with NJ Transit to add service so more New Jersey residents can get off their trains and cross the Hudson River by ferry. Likewise, the Long Island Rail Road proposes to give its riders a ferry option from Glen Cove, N.Y., on Long Island’s North Shore – raising regional demand for yet more commuter ferry capacity.