The Vineyard’s long-gone ‘electric’ ferry

SSA predecessor chartered ‘electrically driven’ ferry Frank E. Gannett in 1929.

Frank E. Gannett, diesel electric ferry, built 1927 in Camden, N.J., for Electric Ferries, New Jersey. — Courtesy The Mariners' Museum an

Electric ferries are a hot topic in the maritime community. For the Steamship Authority, the idea has become a subject of public interest. While some U.S. ferry services are already investing in the concept, the SSA has a long checklist of other action items, and hasn’t shown an inclination to take a deep dive into the technology. But history shows new technology is nothing new to earlier incarnations of the SSA. 

SSA brass touched upon the idea of electric propulsion systems at a July 24 board meeting after being pressed on the subject by two Vineyarders. Board chairman Robert Jones said conversion of existing SSA vessels would carry too steep a price tag. Director of marine operations Mark Amundsen concurred. However, general manager Robert Davis indicated he was open to looking at electric ferries in the future. An electric ferry serving Martha’s Vineyard isn’t a new concept. A predecessor of the SSA, the New England Steamship Co., which operated the New Bedford, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket Steamboat Line, chartered a vessel in 1929 that the Boston Globe described as an “electrically driven ferryboat.”

This was the ferry Frank E. Gannett, owned by Electric Ferries, Inc. It was chartered “for the purpose of augmenting the service furnished by the regular steamers in transporting automobiles,” the Globe reported. The Globe went on to report that port infrastructure was remade to accommodate this new ferry: “Changes have been made in the wharves at Woods Hole and Vineyard Haven to adapt them to the use of the ferry, which is boarded from the end of the boat rather than from the side as is the case with the island line steamers.” 

In the book “The Island Steamers,” authors Paul Morris and Paul Morin specify the Frank E. Gannett was chartered “to help ‘clean up’ the large backlog of summer automobiles that had to be taken off the Vineyard.”

The authors went on to quote Richard Berry, who worked on the vessel: “The ferry was fitted with Nelseco four-cycle submarine diesel engines (two) of World War I vintage, which drove DC generators, which in turn drove a motor mounted on the propeller shaft. The shaft ran the full length of the hull and mounted a propeller at each end.”

Based on that description, Bob Mitchell, a longtime New Bedford builder of marine generator sets, told The Times the Frank E. Gannett appeared diesel-electric driven, as opposed to electric or hybrid-electric driven, which would require batteries for either system to function. The addition of batteries would make the Frank E. Gannett into something of a hybrid in Mitchell’s eyes. 

One type of hybrid vessel in those days were submarines. Pre-nuclear submarines regularly ran on just their batteries while submerged, often for stealth purposes, and on their diesel engines when at the surface. Mitchell said it was conceivable the whole propulsion system, including batteries, could have been taken from a World War I submarine and installed in the Frank E. Gannett. But he saw no evidence of batteries based on Berry’s technical description. The submarine batteries of that era Mitchell described as “ridiculously huge” and therefore not something easily missed. 

“They were like two feet by two feet by eight feet tall,” he said. The Times found no proof elsewhere that the Gannett possessed batteries, and other than their lack of being mentioned in Berry’s description, no proof the ferry didn’t possess batteries. The vessel may well have been solely diesel-electric, a system that was still not very old in 1927, the year the Frank E. Gannett was built in Camden, N.J., according to records at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va. 

The marine diesel-electric worldwide debut came with the launch of the Russian tanker Vandal in 1903. Tisbury Towing and Transportation owner Ralph Packer, a longtime mariner, who hadn’t previously heard of the Frank E. Gannett, said it’s quite possible the ferry was called “electric” simply to shorten diesel-electric. 

The primary advantage of a diesel-electric propulsion systems, according to John Christensen, an instructor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, is they “run at their most efficient speed all the time.” 

For Noli Taylor and Emily Gazzaniga, the Vineyarders who pushed the SSA to consider alternatives to the diesel-electric systems its ferries still use today, the primary liability of those systems is their carbon footprint. 

Cognizant of of its own carbon footprint, Washington State Ferries, America’s largest ferry system, is looking to convert some of its fleet to hybrids and also build new hybrid vessels. 

A study by the Elliott Bay Design Group, the same folks who designed the MV Island Home and MV Woods Hole, showed hybridizing Washington State Ferries’ 460-foot Jumbo Mark II Class vessels could pay big emissions dividends. The study estimated that on some routes the decrease in carbon emissions “from source to vessel” would amount to 73.9 percent or higher. Washington State Ferries is looking to a U.S. Clean Air Act settlement to help pay for conversion.

“A timeline for our hybrid conversion has not yet been set, as the legislature’s allocated funding is contingent on the release of Volkswagen settlement money,” Washington State Ferries spokesperson Justin Fujioka wrote in an email. “Because we don’t have the money in hand, there is not yet a design, but we are hoping it will be ready in time for the updating of the propulsion system on the first Jumbo Mark II. If it isn’t, a hybrid-update will be ready for a later date.”

In May, the Gee’s Bend Ferry of Alabama became America’s first all-electrically driven ferry. HMS Consulting, the folks who generated the independent analysis of the SSA, drafted the RFP for the project, and Glosten Associates, a co-author of that analysis, designed the conversion.

“[N]aval architecture and marine engineering firm Glosten provided concept through contract design and shipyard technical support for the project, which was managed by HMS Ferries and HMS Consulting,” Marine Log reported in May. 

Mitchell said echoes of the Frank E. Gannett can be seen in the SSA fleet’s oldest vessel, the MV Governor. Both vessels are double-enders with low profiles. And like the Frank E. Gannett, the Governor was outfitted with direct-current (DC) generators and had a similar overall propulsion configuration. 

However, the Governor was modernized with MTU diesel engines and with alternating-current (AC) generator sets from Mitchell’s own company, R.A. Mitchell Co.  

The time the Frank E. Gannett spent plying the waters between the Vineyard and Woods Hole was short, according to Morris and Morin in “The Island Steamers.”

“She was chartered on August 23 and lasted about a month in the Island service. She finally ended her days in the Panama Canal area.” 

The Frank E. Gannett charter came at the tail end of a boom period for the New England Steamship Co., which was actually a railroad subsidiary — the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, according to Martha’s Vineyard Museum research librarian Bow Van Riper. 

As the SSA ponders modernizing its fleet today, so too did its ancestor in the early 20th century (and actually did so). 

“Early in the 1920s, the railroad deliberately overhauled the fleet that served the Island,” Van Riper emailed, “phasing out the old side-wheel steamers in favor of four new steel-hulled screw steamers built in 1923 (Islander, renamed Martha’s Vineyard), 1925 (Nobska, renamed Nantucket, then renamed Nobska again in 1957), 1928 (New Bedford) and 1929 (Naushon).”

Collectively these steamers were called the “White Fleet,” he wrote. 

Packer said his father, also Ralph Packer, was president of the Vineyard Haven Wharf Co. during the time the Frank E. Gannett would have served the Vineyard. The railroad behind the New England Steamship Co. leased the wharf and paid for all work on it. So though he hadn’t heard of the upgrades necessary to accommodate the Frank E. Gannett, he felt sure the railroad footed the bill for them. 

Asked at a June board meeting in Hyannis if the SSA is considering electric ferries, Robert Davis said, “As we go forward, we’ll be looking as part of the strategic plan.”

He went on to say, “We’re keeping abreast of what the industry has — whether it’s hybrid or electric — and what the limitations are, and whether it’s a suitable use for our operating routes.”

In July, at an SSA board meeting in Tisbury, Davis said it was worth considering some kind of electric propulsion when the SSA designs its next ferry.