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Friday, 25 November 2016

First thoughts on Sydney's new ferry

Catherine Hamlin berthed in front of the Manly ferry Collaroy at Mort Bay Balmain

The first of six new inner harbour ferries, the Catherine Hamlin, was delivered to the Sydney Ferries shipyard in Balmain last Monday. But is it really an inner harbour ferry?

I haven't been on board yet to have a good look round and operational trials are a long way off completion, so this post is by no means a review. It's more a list of questions. 

The new boat's appearance certainly owes a lot to the Alan Payne designed First Fleet Class which was introduced to the Sydney Ferry fleet from late 1984. It is refreshing to see a new ferry that looks like it was designed 40 or 50 years ago. Alan Payne liked traditional lines, so the First Fleeters did not exactly look modern even in 1984, even though they were catamarans with many technological innovations. 

While it may look like a First Fleeter, there are plenty of differences, which is why this post starts by asking if the Catherine Hamlin truly is an inner harbour ferry. Sydney's ferries operate in a wide range of sea states, with differing performance requirements:

  • the ferry to Manly can be subject to big swells when passing the Heads and difficult surge conditions at the Manly terminal.
  • the runs to Watsons Bay and Rose Bay are long and best suited to a high speed ferry.
  • inner harbour routes like Neutral Bay, Mosman and Darling Harbour cover short distances, but with multiple stops and speed restrictions: slower but highly manoeuvrable and fast loading vessels are needed for these conditions.
  • Parramatta River runs are different again with the need for shallow draught and low superstructure to allow ferries to pass under bridges.
This doesn't do justice to all the requirements, but suffice to say that planning a fleet acquisition program for Sydney Ferries is complex, and more so when having to take into account the vessels retained from the legacy fleet.

Some aspects of the Catherine Hamlin design are striking. Its freeboard (the distance between the main deck and the water line) looks to be about the same as the Supercats, which is nearly 50 cms higher than the First Fleeters. It also has a raised foredeck and high bow. And it can operate at 27 knots, which is a little faster than the SuperCats. At 35 metres in length, it is hard to imagine it will be as manouevrable as a First Fleeter when berthing at one of those tricky inner harbour wharves. 

The high freeboard means that if the Catherine Hamlin visits inner harbour wharves normally serviced by First Fleeters, the steep incline of gangplanks will be difficult to navigate by passengers with disabilities or strollers. 

So will the six new ferries actually be used mainly for Watsons Bay, Rose Bay and as back up for the Manly ferry? Are the four SuperCats, the youngest vessels in the fleet before the Catherine Hamlin's arrival, scheduled for early retirement? 

Passengers will enjoy the freedom of movement inside and outside the new vessel, especially being able to walk right around the upper deck outside. Small children will have a field day. Having two gangway gates on each side of the vessel and two sets of doorways for entry to the main deck are another big benefit. Providing the gangway gates properly align with bollards and fenders on wharves, then there is the potential for much faster passenger loading.  

There is one negative observation to be made. When Alan Payne designed the First Fleet Class vessels, he made a special effort to ensure all seats on the main and upper decks had a wide field of view outside. Sydney Harbour is beautiful and passengers expect to be able to view it unimpeded. The raised foredeck on the Catherine Hamlin, with extensive outside seating and stairs to the upper deck, will block the forward view for passengers sitting inside on the main deck. This is certainly disappointing.

Operational trials will commence soon in Sydney Harbour, but the Catherine Hamlin will not be in service for a little while yet - perhaps sometime in January. We will know by then more about its operational performance, such as the wash it pulls at high speed (quite a bit, based on early reports), its manoeuvrability and fuel consumption. Perhaps we will also learn how the fleet acquisition strategy dovetails with network design plans and the wharf infrastrucuture improvement program. 

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