New VITRAN Catamaran Ferries Are Luxurious — But Not All Smooth Sailing

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VITRAN Tunnel? The pair of catamaran-hulled ferries were briefly docked side-by-side in early July before going into service operated by the two St. John ferry franchisees, Varlack Ventures and Transportation Services.

The first full week of regular service by the new government-owned VITRAN ferries on the Red Hook, St. Thomas, to Cruz Bay, St. John, route started inauspiciously on Monday, July 7, and problems continued through the week while government officials hailed the introduction of the new vessels.

When the Cruz Bay 1 limped into Cruz Bay harbor before 6 a.m. Monday, after leaving Red Hook at 5:30 a.m. full of commuters, and carrying the latest edition of the St. John Tradewinds, it was apparent the vessel wasn’t running properly.

The captain didn’t attempt to turn the obviously crippled boat around before pulling up to the dock and couldn’t maneuver it sideways to berth so deckhands struggled to pull the stern of the 200-passenger vessel to the end of the ferry dock.

The crew then had to carry any luggage or cargo from the limited baggage space at the stern the length of the boat to off-load from the forward doorway — from which the passengers also had disembarked.

Mechanic Tackles First Repairs
A mechanic arrived within minutes to assess the problem with the Transportation Services operated Cruz Bay 1 — as franchisee Varlack Ventures prepared one of its regular ferries for the 6 a.m. run to St. Thomas.

The Cruz Bay 1 was back in service by the end of the day and both ferry franchise operators were running their respective 85-foot aluminum catamarans in their daily schedules — more than eight months after the $3.25 million vessels first arrived in the territory.

After Monday morning’s glitch, both ferry franchisees appeared to be incorporating the new vessels into their schedules until another interruption Wednesday night, July 9, which involved St. John Senator at Large Craig Barshinger as a passenger.

Cruz Bay 1stranded adrift in Vessup Bay”
Cruz Bay 1 from RH (Red Hook, St. Thomas) to Cruz Bay stranded adrift in Vessup Bay. Red Hook 1 passed the stranded boat & docked in RH,” Sen. Barshinger emailed DPW Commissioner Daryl Smalls from his mobile phone. “After 20 mins, Cruz Bay 1 doubled back to RH dock. Confusion in pilot house. Finally it set out & performed normally. Reached Cruz Bay abt 7:47 pm.”

“Seemed like a safety issue,” Sen. Barshinger wrote Smalls. “Captain & crew members in pilot house appeared unfamiliar with boat operation. No Safety Briefing was made/played.”

“Please investigate & inform Legislature Cmte on Gov’t Ops of status of this issue,” Diane Capehart, Chair, and Craig Barshinger, Vice-chair.

“The Red Hook 1 seems to be running better than the Cruz Bay 1,” opined one veteran taxi driver monitoring operations from the Cruz Bay taxi stand.

Officials of long-time franchisees Varlack Ventures and Transportation Services have been reticent about the introduction and operation of the new ferries and their months of negotiations with the V.I. government.

Contract Talks Take Eight Months
Negotiations on operating agreements for the vessels between the V.I. Department of Public Works, as the owner of the vessels, and the two private St. John companies which hold government operating franchises for the St. Thomas-St. John ferry service had dragged on since the ferries arrived in the territory in early November 2013.

After reportedly being pressed into service on Emancipation Day, July 3, by Gov. John P. deJongh himself, the bright blue boats with white trim earned good reviews from passengers as the vessels were worked into the operating schedules through the heavy traffic of the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

After months of negotiations, both franchisees subsequently have signed management contracts with the government for the operation of of their respective boats, Smalls said.

The operating agreement includes a token payment to the government by the franchise operators for the use of the boats, which were purchased with a total of $7.6 million in federal funds, and requires the franchisees to maintain the vessels with operating revenues, according to the commissioner.

The boats are meant to supplement the existing fleet, not replace the larger single-hulled boats, Smalls reportedly told the V.I. Daily News.

“I’ve received nothing but positive words and encouragement,” Smalls said. “The reviews that I’ve had have been positive, both from the public and the franchise operators themselves.”

“Plush” Interiors Face Heavy Use
In fact, regular inter-island travelers expressed concern about the durability of the plush seats with the local daily commuter traffic and sometimes soggy tourists.

Infrequent ferry travelers who haven’t yet experienced the voyage on the new vessels, meanwhile, react incredulously to  the reports of multiple flat screen televisions to entertain riders in the wood-paneled cabin complete with handicapped accessible toilets.

Unfortunately the St. John to St. Thomas transit takes less than 15 minutes when the new vessels are operating effectively — so the movie being shown on all four screens never gets very far before starting over again for the return trip.