The simple task of transporting passengers and sometimes cargo across a body of water may not seem all that remarkable, but it is something that dates back centuries. There are several published works and writings from ancient times that suggest that the profession of boatman was a crucial aspect of earlier cultures and civilizations.
Today, ferries remain an essential means of transportation around the world. In various cities and riverside destinations, these vessels are part of the public transportation system, providing the means to travel on water without the use of a bridge or tunnel.
Furthermore, ferries are also common in larger seas or oceans, connecting countries and even continents. While these colossal vessels are amazing to make and build, each and every component, no matter how small, can be crucial. So we like to think that our range of high-quality products, from BSP adapters to NPT fittings, can come in handy.
But what is the history of the ferry? How many different types of boats are there? And what are the biggest ferries and the busiest routes in the world?
In Greek mythology, Charon was Hades’ ferryman, transporting newly deceased souls across the Styx and Achron rivers, which separated the worlds of the living and the dead. However, he still had to pay Charon a fee, usually a coin placed in or on the mouth of a dead person. In the days before steam and diesel, the method of propulsion chosen by this boatman was a long pole held in his right hand, while receiving the deceased with his left.
In Anonymus De Rebus Bellicis, a 4th century piece of Roman literature, it is speculated that a pair of oxen once propelled a ferry. In theory, this principle could work, especially considering Kevin J. Crimson’s reservation When Horses Walked on Water: Horseback Ferries in 19th Century America.
But it is said that the first steam ferry was the Juliana, invented by John Stevens. It began operating on October 11, 1811 between New York City and Hoboken, New Jersey. However, with the advent of diesel engines in the 20th century, steam ferries have become a rarity and are reserved for special occasions or tourist routes.
While most modern ferries still use diesel as their primary fuel source, the shipping industry is constantly looking for cleaner alternatives that are less damaging to the environment. Studies have found that ships that run on liquefied natural gas are slightly more efficient, while electric and hybrid alternatives have also been developed in recent years.
Types of modern ferry
Although there are several different types of ferries in operation today, each one often shares certain characteristics. However, the length of the route, passenger or vehicle capacity, speed restrictions or requirements, and weather conditions will determine which ferry will be used in a particular location.
The front and rear of this type of ferry, known as the bow and stern, are interchangeable. Therefore, they can travel back and forth between two ports of call without having to turn around. While this saves a great deal of time, it is sometimes absolutely necessary due to the size and area restrictions of certain terminals.
Famous double-ended ships include the Staten Island Ferry, the Washington State Ferries, the Star Ferry, and numerous ships on the North Carolina Ferry System and Lake Champlain Transportation Company. There are also double-ended ferries in operation in the Norwegian fjords, British Columbia, and Sydney, Australia.
Although hydrofoil ferries may seem like a fairly advanced concept, prototypes date back more than 100 years. Essentially, a hydrofoil is a boat that initially floats on the surface, but as speed increases, the hull rises out of the water, reducing drag and allowing higher speeds. The benefit of this type of vessel is that passengers can be transported quickly while minimizing fuel costs. For this reason, they are common in the English Channel and compete with the Eurostar trains that use the tunnel.
However, they also have their downsides. Due to their technically complex nature, they are expensive to build and require ongoing maintenance. Additionally, the sharp edges of a hydrofoil that reside in the water during operation can also damage or kill marine mammals such as whales.
The development of the modern hovercraft is typically attributed to the British mechanical engineer Sir Christopher Cockerell. In the 1950s, he developed a marine navigation vehicle that used fans to produce a large volume of air under the hull. The difference in air pressure above and below the hull creates lift and allows a hovercraft to float on the surface of the water.
Due to their adaptability and cost effectiveness, they soon became a commercial success, predominantly in the UK and the English Channel. Before long, hovercraft were also adopted by the military and even used for recreational purposes.
But like hydrofoils, they require a lot of maintenance and can be susceptible to damage from harsh weather conditions. On top of that, hovercraft are limited to a certain payload and their ability to stay at sea is dependent on size.
These ferries have two parallel hulls of equal size, which have a stable geometry. Due to its lightweight nature, thin hulls that reduce drag, and no keel weighted down, a catamaran has a shallow draft and can travel at high speeds. They also list much less than a monocoque, allowing for a more comfortable and efficient ride.
Traditionally, they relied on the wind for power and their sails would shed less than alternatives. But today’s catamaran ferries combine the characteristics of a motor yacht with the characteristics of a multihull.
Due to their myriad advantages, catamarans are the preferred ferry for various high-speed services. They can replicate the speeds of a hydrofoil without being hit by strong waves or dirty water.
Roll-on / roll-off
Mainly used for transporting wheeled cargo such as cars, trucks and trailers, the loading and unloading boats have built-in ramps that allow vehicles to be loaded effortlessly. When the vessel reaches its destination, the cargo can exit the other end just as easily.
In the past, vehicles had to be specially prepared before being hoisted into a ship’s hold, which was a costly and time-consuming exercise. Besides that, the cargo was also subject to damage. But in 1849, Thomas Bouch came up with the idea of a train shuttle with an efficient up and down mechanism to maximize efficiency.
While these were widely used in World War I, specially designed landing ships capable of carrying military vehicles were developed for World War II. Today, they are still widely used for passenger and commercial purposes.
The combination of a cruise ship and a ‘Ro-Pax ferry’, this type of vessel is typically used by tourists on vacation by sea or simply as a means of transportation. They are like a cruise ship in that they have numerous facilities on board, such as restaurants, bars, and even entertainment or accommodation. RoPax ferries are those with a large garage entrance and a large passenger capacity.
Cruises are typically found throughout Europe in the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, the Irish Sea, the English Channel, and the Mediterranean. However, they also operate between China and Australia.
They are not the most advanced or modern ships in the western world, but pontoon ferries are widely used in less developed countries. Due to their inexpensive yet versatile nature, pontoon ferries are often used to transport people and vehicles across large rivers or lakes where the cost of a bridge is too high.
The most common pontoon ferries borrow design ideas from a catamaran. But instead of featuring two narrow hulls, they generally have pontoons on either side of the platform or raft. Ramps will be installed on both sides of the vessel to increase the efficiency of passengers and vehicles getting on and off.
Also known as a chain ferry, spinning ferry, floating bridge, or boat, this type of vessel is guided and often propelled through the water by cables connected to both banks. Traditionally, rope or steel chains were used, but in the late 19th century, stronger and more durable wire rope became common.
A jet ferry uses the energy from the river to veer through the current, while a motorized ferry has a motor or electric motor to wind itself. The gears or drums on board pull the boat, but the cables or chains have quite a bit of slack as they have to sink below the surface and allow the boat to pass.
There are also fast-disappearing manual ferries, such as the Stratford-upon-Avon Chain Ferry in the UK and the Saugatuck Chain Ferry in Michigan, USA.
Modern Ferry Facts and Figures
The world’s largest car ferry in service: the MS Ulysses, operated by Irish Ferries between Ireland and Wales. Launched in March 2011, this boat is 12 decks high, but six are specifically designed for vehicles. In total, the Ulysses can carry 1,342 cars and 240 trucks.
The world’s largest passenger ferry in service: Stena Hollandica and Britannica, operated by Stena Line between the Netherlands and Great Britain. This ship has 1,376 beds, 538 cabins, an on-board cinema, lounge, bar, buffet and a la carte restaurants, a sun deck and free Wi-Fi throughout.
The world’s fastest car ferry in service: the Luciano Federico L, operated by Buquebus between Montevideo, Uruguay and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Capable of reaching a maximum sea trial speed of 60.2 knots, it holds a Guinness World Record. The ship can also carry 450 passengers and 52 cars along this 110-nautical-mile route.
The oldest ferry service in continuous operation: the Mersey Ferry between Liverpool and Birkenhead or the Rocky Hill to Glastonbury Ferry. This is a controversial record, as a couple of different ferries claim to be the oldest service still operating today. In 1150, the monks at the Benedictine Priory at Birkenhead used to charge a small fee to row passengers across the Mersey Estuary. However, there may have been a break in service following the dissolution of the monasteries. The ferry between Rocky Hill and Glastonbury, Connecticut, which has been in operation since 1655, only stops operating when winter freezes into winter.
The world’s largest ferry system: On the west coast of Scotland, Caledonian MacBrayne operates a fleet of 29 vessels, calling at 50 different ports. Elsewhere in the world, BC Ferries in British Columbia has 36 ships visiting 47 terminals, while Washington State Ferries owns 28 ships, going to 20 destinations around Puget Sound.
Although jumbo jets and high-speed trains have replaced ferry routes in some areas, they remain an incredibly important and crucial mode of transportation for millions of people around the world. The most modern boats are also incredibly fast, very efficient and can carry dozens of passengers in comfort and style.