Dealing with Ferries and Party Boats!
It's A Jungle Out There - Part III
by Ralph Díaz
Ferries and party cruise boats defy the logic and advice given earlier. In waterborne traffic terms, they are neither fish nor fowl. They are technically commercial traffic with all the licensing and training requirements of that category but, when out on the water, they have the freedom of movement of pleasure boat traffic. They present a unique set of traffic problems. Here is a look at their operating parameters and what to do to be safe when out among such craft.
Ferries, Ferries Everywhere
In recent years, coastal cities have seen an enormous growth and resurgence in ferry traffic. For example, New York City, which had just three ferries still in operation from an earlier day when there were ferries crossings every 20 or 30 blocks, has seen nearly a five-fold growth in the number of ferry runs. It is difficult to keep up with them as more cross-river and along-river ferry services are opened up.
New York is not alone in this phenomenon. It is an outgrowth of the movement for waterfront revival in coastal city after coastal city. Indeed, many of these ferries service new waterfront housing developments and new tourist and recreational facilities along the water’s edge. Communities are also encouraging more ferry runs as a way to relieve some of the road traffic clogging tunnels and bridges.
From the point of view of an on-board commuter or tourist, a ferry is a great way to see the water and recharge the spirit. But for paddlers, who are seeking to enjoy the same waters under their own power, ferries have to be looked on in a different, often dangerous way.
Ferries can go anywhere.
They are not confined to any set channels. As a rule, they tend to have shallower drafts than other commercial boats (that’s why they, at times, flounder in heavy seas). When out in open water, they move as they please. For example, the Staten Island Ferry follows a general route from which it can veer quite sharply as it crosses New York’s Upper Bay. A paddler crossing the harbor can’t be absolutely certain where that ferry will intersect his path. Since there is no “ ferry channel” there is no easy way to tell whether you are out of its way.
Ferries are highly maneuverable.
Unlike a tanker or a freighter, ferries have a relatively short stopping distance. Some of them can turn on a dime. Again, back to that Staten Island Ferry. I was once on one with a local industrial archaeology group that was allowed on the bridge. While discussing the propulsion of the craft, the skipper demonstrated how it could turn totally around inside of its own space. A twist of the wheel, and there we were, facing back at Manhattan, having pivoted as if around a pole. (He never announced anything to the passengers below; I wonder what they thought was happening!) For a paddler, there are pluses and minuses in this maneuverability. A ferry can get around you quickly but it may also suddenly come dead-on.
Ferries are fast.
With not much of them underwater, since they don’t have deep cargo holds, they can pick up a good head of steam quickly. In this regard, ferries are deceptive: their bulk above the waterline would suggest they can’t move much. It’s easy for you to be lured into a false security and attempt to cross ahead of it only to find that the vessel is atop of you at the point of intersection.
Ferries are vulnerable to currents and weather.
If seas pick up, all that nimbleness they have in calmer conditions dissipates dramatically. So, as a paddler, you have to have two sets of eyes in considering a ferry, one for calm conditions and one for tempestuous ones.
Ferry skippers are used to smaller traffic darting around them.
And they know local hazards along their routes since a captain might make a crossing 20 times a day across the same waters. Probably more so than the skipper of a freighter, a ferry captain has a sharper eye out. This means that he or she is more likely to spot your puny kayak, especially if you make every effort to be visible. But, of course, never count on this.
Ferries are carrying the most precious of cargos—human beings.
In a pinch, you might count on the skipper of a freighter to run aground to avoid you if that were possible, but a ferry captain would not, even if he could, since he wouldn’t want to risk injuring passengers.
Dealing With Ferries
The points above are only some of the things about them that make ferries worrisome to a paddler. These should be enough to make you think carefully when in the vicinity of a ferry. Here are some of but, by no means, all of the actions you can take to minimize your risks.
Know your currents cold.
If you anticipate paddling in a busy harbor or waterway with lots of traffic including ferries, you have to know your currents, what directions they are going in, where are they strongest, when are they changing, and what speeds you can expect especially at maximum floods and ebbs. Such knowledge will give you a greater margin for survival.
When positioning yourself vis-a-vis a moving ferry, have a good idea of how water forces might be acting on the ferry’s course of action.This is part of the above point on currents.
For example, in New York City, ferries crossing the Hudson River from New Jersey to Manhattan do have trouble at times when they hit the currents on the Manhattan side, where they are generally the strongest. I have seen these ferries move a 150 feet or more sideways at the impact of a flood current at that part of the river. Imagine if you were lying in wait at that spot, thinking you were allowing room for the ferry to cross in front of you! The ferry skipper would have no way to keep from sideswiping you.
Have an idea of a ferry schedules if at all possible.
With so many ferries on the water, and with schedules changing at peak times, this is difficult to do. But give it a try.
An important adjunct of the above point, is make certain you do know where ferries are likely to emerge from and to enter to dock. If you are not certain of ferry schedules at least keep an eye on their terminals to see if one is coming out. Also, have a general idea of what path they follow, although as mentioned earlier, they don’t necessarily stick to any particular route as they go from Point A to Point B.
Be especially careful when crossing close to a ferry terminal.
As required by maritime law, a ferry must toot its horn upon leaving a dock. However, it doesn’t have to start on the horn until it is about to pass beyond its berth’s outermost reaches into the waterway. Thus, it may already be building up speed at that point. Don’t think the horn means it is about to leave. It is already on the move. Around New York City, the Staten Island Ferry is particularly dangers in this respect. If you hear the horn, it is probably too late for you if you are passing in front if its terminal.
Be aware of ferry speeds.
As mentioned earlier, ferries are deceptively fast. Give yourself a margin if you are attempting to cross in front of a ferry. To be on the safe side, take whatever distance margin you think you need to cross ahead of the ferry and double that figure.
Party Cruise Boats
Just as waterfront development has spurned more ferry routes, it is also contributing to more local cruise vessels. In any waterfront city, big or small, you’ll see this type of vessel taking people out for lunch or dinner cruises, or twilight cocktail trips or office party celebrations.
There are more and more of them each day; it’s a lucrative business with many customers willing to pay the high charges for this service in order to get a unique look at their city from aboard a ship. It doesn’t have to be big bucks either. In New York City, for example, there are brown bag lunch cruises from the Battery area that charge just $5 for an hour or so out. From the paddler’s point of view, these party cruise boats are our worse nightmare:
There is absolutely no way to know their schedules.
There are so many of them; often they are on special charter; and even “scheduled” ones leave only when the last paying customer is aboard.
Their paths of passage are totally unpredictable.
Sometimes they’ll go one way, sometimes another. And, they’ll turn around when you least expect them to. I recently found myself playing chicken with one. I had let it pass before I proceeded to cross the channel only to find that once I was committed it abruptly turned around to head back down river. Luckily, I was aware what the currents were doing, figured these would impair its movement a bit and I continued quickly with my crossing, letting the party boat go behind me.
They seem to be almost oblivious to your presence.
While their captains are licensed with all the training and knowledge that requires, they are on a set mission—entertain those on board. So, they are looking to get close to a passing ocean liner to give clients a view. Or pull nearer shore to look at something. They may not spot you in the process. Worse yet, they may see you and think getting close might add to the clients’ entertainment!
They can leave enormous wakes behind them.
Something about their shape and powerful motors really churns up the waters in a big way. Sometimes when I see one coming it seems to be followed by a version of the Johnstown Flood.
What To Do With Party Boats
You’ll need your full arsenal of defenses covered in earlier articles as well as some of the pointers from dealing with ferries. Be even more cautious then with other traffic.
Give them a wide berth.
Wider than you would give other type vessels. They are too unpredictable to make any assumption, even reasonable ones.
Let them make the first move.
Wait, and let them make another move. They have more moves than Michael Jordan.
Be careful in making any crossing regarding them.
As mentioned above, they may just turn around and come back, something you’ll never see a freighter, ferry, or most pleasure boats, do.
If in an open cockpit folding kayak without a spraydeck, make certain to turn into their wake as they pass.
Normally, you can expect to ride out a wake on your beam. But the one from a party cruise boat may be so great that it will swamp an open cockpit kayak. Turning into the wake to take it on your bow or bow quarter is the smart move.
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