Author: Rolf Karlsen
Since antiquity, man has encountered streams and rivers barring his path and has found ways to cross them. Some of the time, with time, manpower, and material available, he was able to build bridges. If it wasn’t possible to make them for whatever reason, he found other means of surmounting the obstacle. Sometimes, it meant a long detour to skirt or avoid the water or to find a suitable fording place. Other times it meant using watercraft to take him from one bank to the other. Without the use of ferries, it would’ve been much harder to get from one place to another – even to the afterlife, as the legend of the Underworld ferryman Charon and the river Styx tells us.
Throughout history, many types of watercraft have been used to ferry people from one place to another. These ranges from the coracle, an ancient circular boat which is still used in some parts of the world, to huge double-hulled catamarans, mechanical marvels which displace more than 70,000 metric tons which are able to take on board thousands of passengers and their vehicles and travel for hundreds of miles in speed, comfort, and safety. With the development of aviation and the rise of fuel prices, the age of the fast transoceanic liners is long gone, but the shorter-range ferry is still a very important mode of transportation throughout the world, whether it be across a river in India or from across a sea, from one country to another. For example, in Sydney, Australia, the inter-harbor ferries carry some 18 million passengers every year.
The level of available technology has always dictated what sources of motive power were used in ferries. The first ferries used either muscle power in the form of a rower or punter or were pulled across a short distance by a rope or chain. Many of these cable or free ferries are still in use worldwide.
Sail power was also used. When the steam engine was invented, it was also pressed into service, and the first steam ferry began shuttling passengers between New York City and Hoboken in 1811. By the end of the nineteenth century, propeller-powered ships were replacing paddle steamers. Waterscrews were easier to operate and maintain.
Because of the limitations inherent in the reciprocating steam engine, the turbine gradually replaced it. It was during and after World War II that the steam turbine’s eventual replacement, the oil-fired engine, was developed to maturity, becoming so successful that by 1960 no more steam-driven ships were being built. Oil-powered engines eliminated the heat losses all steam engines have and are able to burn cheaper, lower-quality fuel. Because of rising fuel costs and environmental concerns, today’s ferry designers are looking to alternative power sources to drive tomorrow’s ships such as hybrid engines, wind, and solar energy.
Types of Ferries
There are several main types of ferry. Water taxis and buses ply carry passengers over short routes, such as in harbors like Hong Kong, Sydney, Bristol, Osaka; and Roll-On Roll-Off ferries, or ROROs, are so called because they have a car deck and ramps which open and enable vehicles to simply drive onto and off them. Double-ended ferries are a variation on this, with identical bow and stern sections which free the ferry from needing to turn around after docking. Hydrofoils, hovercraft, and catamarans are also used as ferries because of the high speeds they are capable of reaching. Cruiseferries are large ships combining features present on cruise ships and car transporters.
About the Author: Rolf Karlsen is very much into ferries and other forms of transportation. He maintains a Danish website about transport and transportation.