Reprinted from The Daily Advance
PLYMOUTH — The public got its first chance at a dockside ceremony in Plymouth Friday to check out the Penelope, the first of two fast ferries Harbor Towns Inc. plans to use to transport passengers between six communities on Albemarle Sound, possibly starting as soon as next month.
The Penelope and the Moses Grandy, the second fast ferry also built by Smoky Mountain Jet Boats in Bryson City and expected to arrive late next month, are specially designed to meet the sometimes rough conditions found in the Albemarle Sound and the rivers that flow into it.
The 45-foot-long, 16-foot-wide ferries of the Albemarle class series are foil-assisted, catamaran-hulled craft that gain extra lift from a hydrofoil, raising the hull above submerged logs, choppy waves and other obstacles.
The boats can travel up to 38 mph under calm river conditions or 33 mph through waves up to 5.5 feet. The boats cost about $1 million each.
As a new design, the Penelope must undergo safety inspections and testing by the U.S. Coast Guard before Harbor Towns can sell tickets and board passengers.
There is no telling how long that process may take, but Harbor Towns CEO Nick Didow, a University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School professor, said he would be surprised if it took more than three or four weeks.
After Harbor Town gets approval from the Coast Guard, the Penelope will receive further cosmetic and other fittings. Training will then begin for the boat’s captain and crew before the ship is ready for the public.
One of Harbor Towns’ first tasks will be taking the Penelope on all of the routes along the system’s six stops. One stop of importance will be in Plymouth and the waters of the Braided Delta.
“We are going to be running tours of the Braided Delta and the Roanoke River,” Peter Thomson, a Harbor Towns spokesman said last month. “That area is (tree) stump city. We are going to have a local show us where we can actually go. He we will know where we can tour safely.”
Once the Penelope is certified by the Coast Guard, Harbor Towns will announce a schedule of ferry service and harbor tours. The fast ferries will operate between the towns of Elizabeth City, Hertford, Edenton, Plymouth, Columbia and Manteo. Both the Penelope and Moses Grandy and the Eagle I, a separate dinner cruise boat Harbor Towns plans to operate, will be homeported in Edenton.
Tours of 30 to 40 minutes will cost between about $15 and $50, depending on where they originate and the area covered. The Harbor Towns Cruises website offers an introductory tour from Edenton for $15, while a more extended tour from Albemarle Plantation costs $50. Operations between towns will run $20-$25 per ticket.
Didow said the ferry system is primarily set up to promote tourism in the area, drawing tourists from the Outer Banks to explore communities further inland. But he said many locals have never seen the region’s river and sound system from a boat. He said he expects the boat trips to be popular with locals as well.
The Harbor Towns ferry project was the brainchild of former Roper Mayor Bunny Sanders, who also attended Friday’s introduction of the Penelope. Sanders was the tourism director for 16 counties when she proposed the fast ferry system 28 years ago. It became a passion, and she pushed the idea so hard she ended up getting fired by the then Northeastern Economic Development Partnership over it. Friday’s arrival of the Penelope was a moment of sweet victory for her, she said.
State Rep. Ed Goodwin, R-Chowan, whose 1st House District includes Chowan, Currituck, Dare, Perquimans, Tyrrell and Washington counties, was instrumental in securing an initial $5 million in funding for the project. Harbor Towns is also seeking an $8 million grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation for infrastructure needs for the ferry service.
During Friday’s dockside ceremony, Goodwin said the project should help revitalize the region, which has suffered from the loss of the tobacco business and textiles. The area’s natural beauty needs to be leveraged, adding that tourism is the key to the region’s future.
The Daily Advance is a newspaper based in Elizabeth City and serving Chowan, Camden, Currituck, Pasquotank and Perquimans counties. Coastal Review is partnering with The Daily Advance to provide readers with more stories of interest about our coast.