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Monday, 26 June 2017

First run for a new Sydney Ferry Class

Passengers disembark at Barangaroo from the first Fred Hollows service
"Commodious" was a commonly used adjective for describing newly commissioned ferries in the Nineteenth Century. The Sydney Morning Herald breathlessly reported the launch of a new double ended steamer, the Wallaby, on 3 April 1879, saying it was "one of the most commodious boats of her kind constructed here".

The Herald also reported on the North Shore Ferry company's plans in 1882 "to build larger and (even) more commodious ferry steamers." Seven years later, the Company announced its order for a "commodious and swift harbour steamer...of a similar type to the Bunya Bunya". 

Over a century may have passed, but commodious and swift are also apt epithets for the latest addition to the Sydney Ferry fleet, the 35 metre catamaran Fred Hollows. It entered the runnings on the 0807 Darling Harbour service this morning and is the first new Sydney Ferry to be acquired in 16 years. Fred is the first of six boats to be acquired by the NSW Government in what will now be known as the Emerald Class.

Today was certainly a big one in Sydney's ferry history as there wasn't just a ferry launch -  the new four berth ferry terminal at Barangaroo South also opened this morning.

Customer experience

The extra 10 metres length compared to a First Fleeter makes a distinct difference. One passenger boarding at Balmain East gasped "it looks like we're catching the Manly Ferry".

Although the superstructure is evocative of the Alan Payne designed First Fleet Class (and they share the same passenger capacity - 400), the interior is far more spacious and comfortable. The two doorways on either side of the vessel should allow faster embarkation than the First Fleeters, if deckhands deploy two gangways.

The roomy interior of the Fred Hollows on its first run

And the Emerald Class is certainly swift, with a maximum speed of 24 knots. 

Passengers will also enjoy having more outside seating on the upper deck, including forward seating, a feature not available on the upper deck of First Fleeters. And in very Sydney style, there's no air conditioning. In summer windows can be opened to get the sea breeze and we wear a coat for the two months of the year when it's cold. 

There is less to like about Fred's external appearance. The straight lines of the hull don't compare well with the curves of a First Fleeter, but then aesthetics are a matter of personal taste. I'll probably get used to it.

A minor disappointment is the lack of a forward view from inside the main deck. The raised bow and outside seating obscures the view. Alan Payne was meticulous in designing the First Fleeters so that passengers inside had the best possible vision of Sydney Harbour. But this is a small quibble.

Operational considerations

Although it's the first in service, Fred Hollows is the second Emerald Class ferry built by Incat in Hobart. The first built - Catherine Hamlin - had some deficiencies, the main one being its capacity to manouevre in high winds. These were rectified in Fred Hollows, which has a bigger rudder and keel. Catherine will be similarly modified at the Harbour City Ferries Balmain Shipyard before entering service. 

It looks like Emerald Class ferries will be deployed on Watsons Bay/ Rose Bay runs, as well as Inner Harbour services (mainly Darling Harbour). They also have capability to back up the Manly Ferry in case of a breakdown. 

The benefit of a multi purpose class is that it offers the possibility of a simpler fleet configuration - perhaps the end game is a fleet of just three classes:

  • Freshwater Class (or whatever replaces it), operating Manly services;
  • RiverCats for the Parramatta River; and
  • Emerald Class for the Inner Harbour, including Watsons Bay/ Rose Bay (The First Fleeters probably have at least another 10 years life in them, so this is a long term strategy).
A previous post explains the benefits of a ferry operation minimising its vessel classes. It's a laudable goal. 

The challenge is that it is hard to build a boat which is well suited to long runs out to Watsons Bay/ Rose Bay and the shorter runs in the Inner Harbour. 

Watsons Bay and Rose Bay passengers have grown accustomed to a fast journey via the SuperCats for about 16 years, hence the requirement to retain fast ferry capacity on this route. But speed has a downside. Frictional resistance on a wetted hull means ferries travelling at 24 knots use a lot of fuel. If the Emerald Class boats are like the SuperCats, they will need to be refueled every day. That's a big cost disadvantage compared to the sedate 13 knot First Fleeters, which only refuel once a week.

Why deploy a 24 knot fast ferry in the true Inner Harbour (between Bradleys Head and Cockatoo Island), on routes where much of the distance traveled has speed restrictions of 15 knots or less? Improving the passenger loading process would achieve a better return in journey speed for the Inner Harbour routes.

But it is early days for the Emerald Class. If there is a common theme in the history of Sydney ferry fleet acquisition, it might be described as iterative. Time and experience leads to modifications and the best way of doing things just sort of unfolds over time. It will probably continue that way. 

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