May 29, 2018
Ocracoke Express Ferry Expected This Fall
By CATHERINE KOZAK
Coastal Review Online
of qualified marine welders and American-made aluminum has delayed
initial plans for a mid-summer launch of the Ocracoke Express, the
state’s first high-speed passenger ferry. But that doesn’t mean that
Outer Bankers won’t possibly be taking a few spins on the new vessel
and tram service this year.
“I just think it will give us time for a successful roll-out,” Jed
Dixon, deputy director of the North Carolina Ferry Division, said at
the May 18 meeting of the Passenger Ferry Stakeholders Committee in
Manteo. “We’re going to miss the peak season.”
After it is delivered later this year, he said, the ferry will undergo sea trials and be ready for operation in spring 2019.
But Hyde County manager Bill Rich prefers to regard the later kickoff
as a golden opportunity for the island community to familiarize itself
with the tram route through the village, and maybe enjoy a few special
event runs of the passenger ferry.
“I really believe they’re going to deliver that thing in September,”
Rich said Wednesday. Hopefully, he added, that means the passenger
ferry could transport some people to the Blackbeard’s Pirate Jamboree
Oct. 25-28 and the 300th anniversary of Blackbeard’s demise on Nov 22.
“If we have it completed,” Rich added, “the ferry will run for those two events.”
According to Tracy Gable, project manager at U.S. Boatworks in Hubert,
North Carolina, the boatbuilders are hustling to get more welders on
line and working split shifts and weekends. But she stopped short at
promising a delivery date.
“We’re trying to get the vessel to DOT and the good folks of Ocracoke
as soon as we can,” Gable said in an interview. “Our ultimate goal is
we want to provide to the state of North Carolina a high-quality vessel
that they can be proud of.”
Early on, she said, the vessel’s design drawings
revealed issues with the hull and the lines of the boat that had to be
re-worked to improve performance. A new team was hired to design a
lighter boat that would run faster, setting the project back a few
Also, the “buy American” clause in the contract resulted in more time
locating sources for the kind of domestic aluminum they needed. But
getting the welding done on the 92-foot vessel was even more difficult.
“The biggest thing that was a challenge was trying to find the skilled labor,” Gable said.
Unlike the West Coast, she said, there are not many marine welders on
the East Coast who are qualified to work on marine-grade aluminum. They
also must pass a certification test by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The company, she said, reached out to community colleges and technical
schools, ran advertisements for welders in sites that reached up and
down the coast and offered on-the-job training. So far, there are 14
certified welders on the job, and another three about to be certified.
The company, located on the Intracoastal Waterway about 20 minutes from Jacksonville, has been in Hubert since 2014.
Dixon said the $9 million project, including $4.15 million for the
100-passenger boat, is creating jobs and more opportunity for the
“It’s an overall great story for North Carolina,” he said. “We haven’t built a ferry in North Carolina in my recent memory.”
The 70-minute trip from Hatteras will cost
$15 for a round-trip ticket and take passengers directly into Ocracoke
village at Silver Lake Harbor. It is anticipated that the online
reservation system that is being planned will eliminate the hours-long
wait in the summer for a free vehicular ferry.
Dixon said that a media event is planned in mid-June at U.S. Boatworks
when the hull is turned over. At the end of June, construction of
passenger shelters at the terminals at both sides, as well as parking
improvements in Hatteras and new bathroom facilities in Ocracoke, are
expected to be completed. Temporary floating docks will also be
constructed and in place for the new ferry.
Meanwhile, two electric-powered trams are expected to be delivered to
Ocracoke by the end of July, Rich said, and the remaining two by early
August. There will also be two trailers that can be pulled by the trams.
Since the state is giving the trams to Hyde County to operate, the
county has the flexibility to use them at other times in addition to
serving the passenger ferry customers. There will be two
trams running the half-hour, eight-stop loop every day from 11 a.m. to
10 p.m. when the passenger ferry is operating. Anyone can ride the 16-
to 20-passenger trams, which is a nice bonus for villagers.
On May 7, the county awarded a 5-year contract to Joseph Ramunni to
operate the trams. Rich said the contract averaged $161,000 for each
season of 127 days.
The county plans to build a $20,000 storage building at property it is leasing for $500 a month at the Berkley Manor, Rich said.
The building will include a charging area for the trams, which can hold a charge for about five hours.
Ramunni, owner of the Ocracoke Community Store at the heart of the
village and a resident for five years, said he is a perfect fit to run
the tram operation.
“It’s kind of a spelled-out process that took some time and energy to
set up correctly,” he told Coastal Review Online. “I have an in-depth
understanding of the people who come to Ocracoke and the flow of the
The state is paying up to $90,000 for the trams and their operation,
and Ocracoke agreed to kick in $70,000 of occupancy tax revenue for the
first two years. If the villagers are agreeable, Rich said, he would
like to get the trams up and running in August as a test period.
“I have full confidence,” he said, “that the ferries and the trams will blend fully with life on Ocracoke.’