With the sun shining over Crown Bay, St. Thomas, on Friday morning, the territory’s two new sleek blue catamaran ferries were dedicated in high style with champagne splashing from the decks of the Red Hook 1 and Cruz Bay 1.
After asking everyone to stand for a moment of silence observing the passing of Nelson Mandela, Gov. John deJongh Jr. expressed his joy at the arrival of the handsome two-decked boats which each seat 201 passengers.
The governor said it was "more than a dream come true, 10 years in the planning." He lauded the "strong partnership for the last three years between the Federal Highway Administration Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands Division and the V.I. Department of Public Works.”
The governor said the spiffy catamarans cost more than $3.5 million each, with $3 million coming from the Obama administration economic stimulus funds, approximately $2.7 in ferryboat discretionary funding and another $2.1 million from DPW’s regular lines of funding from the FHA.
"The boats are designated solely to operate between Red Hook and Cruz Bay," the governor said, adding some exciting news for the future.
"Ferry service between St. Thomas and St. Croix will be right behind this, along with service between Water Island, Crown Bay, Yacht Haven Grand and the West Indian Co. dock at Havensight," the governor said.
The Harbor Transportation Project that the governor referred to will provide alternative transportation to the district with five stopping points for ferry vessels that can carry between 50 and 100 passengers, according to Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls. The project is still in the design phase, which is about 30 percent complete.
At a Downtown Revitalization Forum last month, Smalls said his department is hoping to implement the ferry project in Fiscal Year 2015. The St. Thomas/St. Croix ferry service is likewise in the “request for proposal stage” at this point, Smalls said.
The audience was studded with local dignitaries – commissioners, senators – and several Federal Highway Administration personnel from Puerto Rico and Florida, as well as Capt. Loredon Boynes Jr. of Transportation Services.
James Christian, FHA Florida division administrator and chief operating officer, praised the partnership of the local DPW and the FHA Puerto Rico /Virgin Islands Division, which he described as a "strong partnership," while also praising the work of Midship Marine, which built the new vessels in New Orleans.
Senator-at-Large Craig Barshinger, a longtime St. John resident, grinned widely as he welcomed the arrival of the two boats.
"It’s been a long time coming," he said. "These catamarans will be much more fuel efficient and a portion of each ticket will go to their proper maintenance." Barshinger said the Varlack boats were at least 20 years old, "and they weren’t new when they were purchased. This is a wonderful improvement," he said.
Michael Hinojosa, founder and president of Midship Marine, strode around the Red Hook 1 during a tour, looking proud as a new papa. He said the two catamarans were built within a year.
"They are unique to this area," he said, adding that the ferry design incorporates aircraft materials including lightweight aluminum panels. Tapping the handsome flooring, Hinojosa said, "This will never wear out."
The boats top speed is 32 knots, or 31 mph, but they will probably operate at 23 knots, he said.
Hinojosa said Midship Marine has been in business since 1983, designing aluminum ships and boats for more than 27 years.
The government-owned boats will be leased to the Varlack Ventures and Transportation Services franchises.
Smalls said the ferries should be in operation by Christmas.
The Rev. Lenroy K. Cabey of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church gave the invocation and, for the benediction, he motioned the audience to come up and circle around him as he lent an intimate feeling to the ceremony, blessing the new boats, their operators and the passengers they would carry. He asked for "safe journeys for all."