The simple task of carrying passengers and sometimes cargo across a body of water might not seem that remarkable, but it is something that dates back centuries. There are various writings and published works from ancient times that suggest the profession of a ferryman was a crucial aspect of former cultures and civilisations.
Today, ferryboats remain an essential means of transport all over the world. In several waterside cities and destinations, these vessels form part of the public transport system, providing the means to travel over water without the use of a bridge or tunnel.
What’s more, ferries are also commonplace in larger seas or oceans, connecting countries and even continents. Although the manufacturing and construction of these colossal vessels is staggering, each and every component, no matter how tiny they may be, can be crucial. Therefore, we like to think our range of high quality products, from BSP adaptors to NPT fittings, might come in handy.
But what is the history of the ferry? How many different types of vessel are there? And what are the biggest ferries and busiest routes in the world?
History of the ferry
In Greek mythology, Charon was the ferryman of Hades, who carried newly deceased souls across the rivers Styx and Acheron, which separated the worlds of the living and the dead. You still had to pay a fare to Charon though, usually a coin placed in or on the mouth of a dead person. In the days before steam and diesel, this ferryman’s chosen method of propulsion was a long pole held in his right hand, while receiving the deceased with his left.
In Anonymus De Rebus Bellicis, a piece of 4th century Roman literature, there is speculation that a pair of oxen once propelled a ferry. This principle could theoretically work, especially when you consider Kevin J. Crimson’s booked entitled When Horses Walked on Water: Horse-Powered Ferries in Nineteenth-Century America.
But the first steam-powered ferry was said to be the Juliana, invented by John Stevens. It began operating on 11th October 1811 between New York City and Hoboken, New Jersey. However with the advent of diesel engines in 20th century, steam-powered ferryboats have become a rarity and are reserved for special occasions or tourist routes.
While the majority of modern ferries still use diesel as their primary fuel source, the shipping industry is constantly looking at cleaner alternatives, which won’t damage the environment as much. Studies have found that vessels running on Liquefied Natural Gas are slightly more efficient, while electric and hybrid alternatives have also been developed in recent years.
Types of modern ferry
Despite the fact there are several different types of ferry in operation today, each one usually shares certain characteristics. However, the length of the route, the passenger or vehicle capacity, speed restrictions or requirements and the weather conditions will determine what ferry is used at a particular location.
The front and back of this kind of ferry, known as the prow 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 vessels include the Staten Island Ferry, Washing State Ferries, Star Ferry and numerous boats on the North Carolina Ferry System and the Lake Champlain Transportation Company. There are also double-ended ferryboats in operation in the Norwegian fjords, British Columbia and Sydney, Australia.
Even though hydrofoil ferries might seem like a fairly advanced concept, prototypes date back over 100 years. Essentially, a hydrofoil is a boat that initially floats on the surface, but when velocity is increased the hull lifts out of the water, decreasing drag and allowing for greater speeds. The benefit of this type of vessel is that passengers can be transported quickly while minimising fuel costs. For this reason, they are commonplace on the English Channel and compete against Eurostar trains that use the tunnel.
However, they have their disadvantages too. Due to their technically complex nature, they are expensive to build and require ongoing maintenance. What’s more, a hydrofoil’s sharp edges that reside in the water during operation can also injure or kill marine mammals such as whales.
The development of the modern hovercraft is typically attributed to British mechanical engineer Sir Christopher Cockerell. In the 1950s, he developed a seagoing vehicle that used blowers to produce a large volume of air below the hull. The difference in air pressure above and below the hull generates lift and allows a hovercraft to float above the water surface.
Due to their adaptability and cost-effectiveness, they soon became a commercial success, predominantly around the UK and in the English Channel. Before long, hovercrafts were also adopted by the military and even used for recreational purposes.
But just like hydrofoils, they require a great deal of maintenance and can be susceptible to damage from adverse weather conditions. On top of that, hovercrafts are constrained to a given payload and their sea keeping ability is dependent on size.
These ferries feature two parallel hulls of equal size, which are geometry-stabilised. Due to their lightweight nature, thin hulls that reduce drag and no ballasted keel, a catamaran has a shallow draught and can travel at fast speeds. They also heel much less than a monohull, allowing for a more comfortable and efficient ride.
Traditionally, they relied on the wind for power and their sails would spill less than alternatives. But modern-day catamaran ferries combine the features of a motor yacht with the characteristics of a multihull.
Due to their countless advantages, catamarans are the ferry of choice for several high-speed services. They can replicate the speeds of a hydrofoil without suffering the effects of strong waves or foul water.
Mainly used to transport wheeled cargo such as automobiles, trucks and trailers, roll-on/roll-off ships have built-in ramps that allow vehicles to effortlessly embark. 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 time-consuming and expensive exercise. On top of that, the cargo was subject to damage as well. But in 1849, Thomas Bouch came up with the idea of a train ferry featuring an efficient roll-on, roll-off mechanism to maximise efficiency.
While these were used extensively in World War I, purpose-built landings 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 kind of vessel is typically used by holidaymakers on seagoing vacations or simply as a means of transportation. They are like a cruise ship in that they have numerous on-board facilities such as restaurants, bars and even entertainment or accommodation. RoPax ferries are those with a large garage intake and substantial passenger capacity.
Cruiseferries are typically found across Europe in the Baltic Sea, North Sea, Irish Sea, English Channel and Mediterranean. However, they also operate between China and Australia.
Not the most advanced or modern vessels 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 carry people and vehicles across large rivers or lakes where the cost of a bridge is too expensive.
The most common pontoon ferries borrow design ideas from a catamaran. But instead of featuring two narrow hulls, they usually have pontoons either side of the platform or raft. Ramps will be installed on either side of the vessel to increase the efficiency of passengers and vehicles getting on and off.
Also known as a chain ferry, swing ferry, floating bridge or punt, this type of vessel is guided and often propelled across the water by cables connected to both shores. Traditionally, rope or steel chains were used, but by the late 19th century, more stronger and durable wire cable became commonplace.
A reaction ferry uses the power of the river to tack across the current whereas a powered ferry has an engine or electric motor to wind itself along. Cogs or drums on-board pull the vessel, but the cables or chains have a fair amount of slack, as they have to sink below the surface and allow the vessel to pass.
Fast-disappearing hand-operated ferries are also still in existence, such as the Stratford-upon-Avon Chain Ferry in the UK and the Saugatuck Chain Ferry in Michigan, USA.
Modern ferry facts and figures
World’s largest car ferry in service – The MS Ulysses, operated by Irish Ferries between Ireland and Wales. Launched in March 2011, this vessel stands 12 decks high, but six are specifically designated for vehicles. In total, the Ulysses can carry 1,342 cars and 240 trucks.
World’s largest passenger ferry in service – The Stena Hollandica and Britannica, operated by Stena Line between the Netherlands and Great Britain. This ship features 1376 beds, 538 cabins, an on-board cinema, lounge, bar, buffet and a la carte restaurants, a sun deck and free Wi-Fi throughout.
World’s fastest car ferry in service – The Luciano Federico L, operated by Buquebus between Montevideo, Uruguay and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Capable of a maximum speed achieved in sea trials of 60.2 knots, it holds a Guinness World Record. The boat can also carry 450 passengers and 52 cars along this 110-nautical mile route.
Oldest ferry service in continuous operation – The Mersey Ferry between Liverpool and Birkenhead or the Rocky Hill to Glastonbury Ferry. This is a contentious record, as a couple of different ferries claim to be the oldest service still operating today. In 1150, monks from the Benedictine Priory in 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 running ever since 1655, only stops operating when the winter freezes over in winter.
World’s largest ferry system – On Scotland’s west coast, Caledonian MacBrayne operate a fleet of 29 vessels, which call at 50 different ports. Elsewhere is the world, BC Ferries in British Columbia have 36 ships that visit 47 terminals, while Washington State Ferries own 28 boats, which go to 20 destinations around Puget Sound.
Even though jumbo jets and high-speed trains have replaced ferryboat routes in some areas, they remain an incredibly important and crucial means of transportation for millions of people worldwide. The most modern vessels are also incredibly quick, very efficient and can transport scores of passengers in comfort and style.