Passenger Ferries: Becoming Cleaner, More Sustainable

The 87-foot by 32-foot Teknicraft aluminum vessel Skana (pictured) will be based in Seward, Alaska and ferry passengers on wildlife tours to Kenai Fjords National Park. Image via All American Marine.

Those in charge of passenger-only ferry design, construction and operations continues to march toward cleaner, more sustainable models and practices.

Whether it’s ferries that get commuters to and from work or catamarans that carry researchers to their oceanic missions, West Coast vessel builders and operators are moving people in a way that produces less pollution.

That move toward zero emissions is expected to quicken with President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Passed in November, it includes “historic levels of funding,” almost $300 million, to enhance access to ferry service and build greener ferries, according to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

“That’s a real significant component of it,” said John Waterhouse, founder and principal of Elliott Bay Design Group, a Seattle-based naval architecture and marine engineering firm that also has offices in New York, New Orleans and Ketchikan, Alaska. “If you don’t have some aspect of reducing emissions for communities and improving transportation, then don’t even bother applying. Those are so important for us all for good reasons, and they’re finally codified now in those funding requirements.”

For Fiscal Year 2022, for example, $49 million has been budgeted for the FTA’s Electric or Low-Emitting Ferry Pilot Program, which would pay for such ferries and related infrastructure to lower greenhouse gas pollution.

Another FTA program, the Passenger Ferry Grant Program, would pay for projects that bolster current ferry services or create new services, as well as fix and upgrade ferries, terminals and other assets. A portion of the $36.5 million budgeted for FY 2022 would go toward low or zero-emissions ferries, according to the FTA.

In February, Kitsap Transit announced that it received a $7.7 million FTA grant to design and build an all-electric foot ferry and put in shoreside charging infrastructure at the Bremerton ferry terminal. The grant would go towards developing a battery-electric foot ferry modeled after m/v Waterman, a Kitsap hybrid-electric vessel that services the Port Orchard-Bremerton route.

“I think the whole passenger-only ferry business is booming right now,” Waterhouse said. “This is an exciting time to be in the marine industry. There is a lot of activity. There’s a lot of true desire to improve the working conditions on our vessels, to improve the environmental footprint and with federal funding, it’s created a lot of opportunity to actually do something about that.”

In the meantime, some West Coast ferry builders and operators have already turned the corner, planning for and producing the next generation of greener ferries and catamarans. Here’s a look at what’s being developed on the West Coast.


One of the more anticipated ferry builds expected to hit the water is Sea Change, a zero-emissions ferry powered by hydrogen fuel cells built by Bellingham, Wash.-based All American Marine with help from North American investment firm SWITCH Maritime and Zero Emissions Industries (ZEI, formerly Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine).

Funded in part with a $3 million California Air Resources Board grant, the 70-foot-long, 84-passenger e-ferry can move as fast as 22 knots. It has a powertrain designed by the former Golden Gate Zero Emission and 360kW hydrogen fuel cells from Cummins.

Fuel cells get energy from hydrogen stored in tanks, creating enough energy to power the electric motors and the ferry’s propellers, Cummins said.

In May, the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) Board of Directors agreed to implement a six-month demonstration project to operate Sea Change for San Francisco Bay Ferry.  It is expected to be transporting passengers in San Francisco Bay sometime in the fall, an AAM spokesman said.

That project and their other successful builds (including its ultra-low wake hydrofoil-assisted catamarans and for some nations, their first hybrid-electric U.S. Coast Guard certified subchapter T and K boats) made AAM an attractive company to the family-owned Bryton Marine Group, which last year acquired the firm.

The sale not only allows All American Marine to operate under its own name and out of its 57,000-square-foot Bellingham facility but it also enables the company to build upon its forward-thinking mindset on aluminum vessel design and construction with the help of Bryton’s capital, vast distribution network and information systems.

“AAM is a formidable addition to our group; they are a great cultural fit with a highly talented team,” Bryton CEO Byron Bolton said when the sale was announced. “Their keen focus on technological integration and commitment to shaping the future of hybrid-electric and hydrogen vessel implementation is inspiring.”

Business continues to be bustling for All American Marine. In May, the company delivered Skana, one of two 150-passenger hydrofoil-assisted catamarans for longtime Alaska boat tour company Major Marine Tours. Its sister vessel, Spirit of Matushka, was delivered in April 2021.

The fuel-efficient, 87-foot (LOA) by 32-foot Teknicraft aluminum vessel with quad Hamilton waterjets will be based in Seward, Alaska and ferry passengers on wildlife tours to Kenai Fjords National Park. The vessel features two enclosed cabins, canopy-covered seats, wheelchair accessibility and a vast stadium-standing viewing space.

This year, AAM also delivered r/v Blue Manta, a 73-foot research vessel for Bluetide Puerto Rico. The Teknicraft-designed catamaran will be based on the marine lab AAM built for Duke University in 2022. The vessel, used for coastal and ocean routes, is the organization’s first for conducting marine research, education and other work out of Puerto Rico. The vessel can carry up to 30 day passengers (up to eight live aboards), including crew, and features wet and dry labs and hold oceanographic equipment.

Meanwhile, All American Marine is currently building r/v Shackleford, a research and hydrographic survey vessel for Geodynamics.

The 73-foot by 26.7-foot aluminum catamaran designed by Teknicraft can accommodate up to 16 day passengers or eight live aboards plus three crew members, as well as modern lab spaces and oceanographic equipment.

The vessel, expected to be delivered in January, is set to operate mainly off the U.S. eastern seaboard.

“This vessel will enable Geodynamics to take their business to the next level, provide unmatched services and expand their scientific activities on the East Coast significantly,” said All American Marine President and COO Ron Wille. “The vessel will also help advance the rapidly growing wind farm industry on the East Coast and beyond.”

The Geodynamics contract is AAM’s latest foray into a market focused on offshore wind farm support and vessels that are needed to analyze ocean-floor data for that kind of development. She will be modeled similarly to the recently commissioned Duke University Marine Lab’s r/v Shearwater and Bluetide Puerto Rico’s  r/v Blue Manta, the company said.

“All American Marine remains committed to being on the leading edge of manufacturing techniques and an innovator in merging the latest technology into a functional and proven vessel,” Wille said. “We are delighted to have been chosen to build this vessel as part of Geodynamics’ growing fleet.”


For the last decade, the public-passenger ferry service administered by WETA has been hard at work turning its 16 ferries into a greener fleet. Ten have Tier IV or Tier IV-equivalent engines and some may be converted to electric batteries in the coming years.

In May, WETA commemorated the commissioning of m/v Dorado, its latest high-speed ferry that can move with a service speed of 36 knots and can accommodate 320 passengers. Designed by One2Three Naval Architects and built by Mavrik Marine in La Conner, Wash., m/v Dorado is the first of four ferries being planned for the vessel class, the agency said. A second Dorado class vessel, m/v Delphinus, is currently being built.

In April, m/v Pisces, a 225-passenger vessel, returned to service after its engines were converted from Tier II to Tier IV, a move that is estimated to curb emissions by 80%, the agency said. It’s the first of the Gemini-class ferries to be converted. M/v Taurus, which is being converted at JT Marine in Vancouver, Wash., is on track to be done in 2023, according to the agency.

Out of the six that are not Tier IV or Tier-IV equivalent, two are expected to be converted either this year or early next year and the rest are on track to be retired or upgraded in the coming year, said Thomas Hall, public information and marketing manager for the San Francisco Bay Ferry.

Meanwhile, the agency expects to wrap up a two-part study in the next few months. It looks into what shoreside infrastructure is needed for a zero-emissions fleet and focuses on marine propulsion technology.

Earlier this summer, San Francisco Bay Ferry officials joined representatives from other ferry agencies who traveled to Scandinavia on a research trip to meet with shipbuilders and operators in Norway and Sweden about shoreside charging and other technology being used in vessels. They wanted to learn how it might be applied in the U.S., particularly the Bay Area.

The transit agency is also developing the San Francisco Clean Ferry Network that would consist of four vessels moving commuters to and from Treasure Island, downtown San Francisco and Mission Bay. This would link passengers to and from Chase Center, the Golden State Warriors’ home arena, as well as major employers such as UCSF Medical Center.

“This would really connect communities along the San Francisco waterfront,” Hall said. “These (neighborhoods) are all relatively close together, but tough to access without water transit.”

In July, the agency announced that it received a $14.9 million grant from the California State Transportation Agency to develop the Clean Ferry Network with battery-electric ferries. So far, the agency has enough grant funding to build three of the four vessels in the network and related infrastructure, Hall said.

“We’re excited to get that work going,” he said. “We’re currently in the procurement phase and hope to be able to bring these vessels out onto the waterfront in the next few years.”


The design group has been hard at work on a number of projects, including a team up with WETA on the development of the agency’s first all-electric ferry.

In May, WETA approved a $1.3 million contract with Elliott Bay for construction management services for the m/v Intintoli Replacement Project. The agency intends for that replacement vessel to be a battery-electric ferry

“That’s really exciting that WETA had confidence … to bring us on as their partner on that design-build project,” Waterhouse said, adding that the new ferry could tentatively carry 300 passengers.

The company is also supporting WETA’s long-term planning efforts. The agency is currently shaping its 2050 Service Vision and Business Plan, a blueprint that looks at the whole Bay Area in terms of ferry service. That vision involves exploring electric and alternative fuels for vessels.

Waterhouse said he is excited to be part of that process.

“They’re looking at where they want to be 25 years from now and planning it out, setting their goals, finding out how to get there,” he said.

The company has also been busy representing Kitsap Transit in providing construction oversight for the agency’s 255-passenger ferries project built by Ice Floe, LLC dba Nichols Brothers Boat Builders. Last year, NBBB delivered Commander, the second of Kitsap’s two ferries. Enetai, the first ferry, was delivered in 2020.

The 140-foot by 37-foot by 12-foot aluminum high-speed catamarans are some of the first ferries to have “a selective catalytic reduction exhaust after-treatment system powered by two MTU Tier IV 16V400M65L main engines, each putting out 3435 HP @ 1,800rpm, through ZF 9050 gears, turning Kamewa S71-4 waterjets, reaching +38 knots at full load,” NBBB said.

“The two Kitsap Transit ferries were built during the global COVID-19 pandemic, forcing NBBB to significantly re-arrange production to allow for safety protocols required to protect our workforce,” said CEO Gavin Higgins, adding that “As the region returns to normalcy it is exciting and rewarding to see two new ferries built by NBBB operating right here in the Pacific Northwest.”

In July, Elliott Bay announced that the 164-foot hybrid-electric passenger ferry it designed for Casco Bay Lines of Portland, Maine, will begin construction at Senesco Marine in North Kingstown, R.I.

The new ferry, which can accommodate 15 vehicles and 599 passengers across three decks, is expected to operate between Portland and Peaks Island, Maine, when it’s set to begin service in 2024. It will replace the diesel-powered Machigonne II, a move that could curb as much as 800 tons of carbon dioxide annually, the company said.

Elliott Bay was deeply involved in the planning process for the new ferry, preparing a propulsion selection study that looked at systems based on capital and operating costs, CO2 emissions and other factors.

“The result is a ferry that features ABB Marine & Ports’ hybrid propulsion system supporting diesel-electric and zero-emissions battery-powered modes, as well as a combination of both,” according to the company, adding that ABB provided a Stemmann Technik FerryCHARGER shore charging system for quick charging in Portland.

(Top) Seattle-based naval architecture and marine engineering firm, Glosten, is designing a new vessel to replace the almost 22-year-old r/v Thuwal (pictured), a fishing vessel that became a research boat for scientists. (Above) Glosten is designing a new 125-foot vessel to replace the 42-year-old research vessel Robert Gordon Sproul, pictured. Images: Glosten.


The Seattle-based naval architecture and marine engineering firm has secured some major design contracts. In June, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) announced that it chose Glosten to design a new, modern oceanographic research vessel that is expected to include “advanced research capabilities for work in both shallow reef and deepwater environments, a reconfigurable deck for multipurpose jobs and equipment, and weather-hardy traits for managing the unique conditions of the Red Sea,” according to the announcement.

The new vessel is expected to replace the almost 22-year-old r/v Thuwal, a fishing vessel that became a research boat for scientists. The university’s expansion into the Red Sea required the more robust capabilities of a new vessel.

Glosten’s work encompasses design, shipyard tendering support and construction oversight through delivery, which is expected in 2026, the company said.

“Our team is excited to bring this new level of research vessel capability to the Red Sea region,” Glosten Principal Ken FitzGerald said in the announcement. “Optimizing a vessel for KAUST for the specific conditions of the operating area and science research needs requires a high level of engagement between our engineers and the KAUST team. This is when we are at our best.”

Also announced this year was the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego’s selection of Glosten to design the college’s new California coastal research vessel.

The new 125-foot vessel, which will replace the 42-year-old research vessel Robert Gordon Sproul, will accommodate up to 45 students and teachers for day trips and be outfitted with a hydrogen-hybrid propulsion system.

It will be designed to allow the vessel to run 75% of its missions solely using a non-fossil fuel, hydrogen, with water and electricity as reaction products. Lengthier missions will call for extra power from clean-running modern diesel generators, according to Scripps Oceanography.

“This vessel will be the first of its kind, and the selection of the naval architect is a major milestone for Scripps,” said Bruce Appelgate, associate director and head of ship operations at Scripps. “Fundamentally, our ships have to be reliable and capable in order to support the innovative research our scientists conduct at sea. On top of that, the ship we envision needs to demonstrate that zero-emission power systems work effectively under demanding real-world conditions. It’s the job of the naval architect to provide the necessary engineering, design and integration skills needed for this project to succeed on every level.”

After the vessel design is completed and Coast Guard-design approval secured, the college plans to choose a shipyard for construction.  

KAREN ROBES MEEKS, a Southern California native, is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years’ writing experience. Her articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Orange County Register and Long Beach Press-Telegram, where she worked as a reporter for nearly 14 years. Her work has been recognized by the California News Publishers Association, the Associated Press News Executives Council and the Los Angeles Press Club.