New ferries are one inspection away from starting service


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ST. THOMAS - The two new passenger ferries still are awaiting a final Coast Guard inspection before they begin to take passengers to and from Red Hook and St. John.

The vessels, named Red Hook I and Cruz Bay I, were delivered to the territory in November and were supposed to be in operation by the end of 2013.

At first, a problem with insurance policies delayed the start of operations, but now the only thing holding up the boats is the final coast guard inspection, Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls said.

The Coast Guard said it is waiting for someone to schedule the inspections.

Funded with $7.6 million in federal funds, the vessels were built by the Louisiana-based company Midship Marine Inc.

The funding for the boats - $3.25 million for each - comes from a number of federal sources. Two different earmarks from the U.S. Transportation Department coupled with a $3 million federal stimulus grant provided the money to purchase the boats.

The ferries are 85-foot aluminum catamarans, each of which can carry about 250 passengers and are loaded with state-of-the-art features. The current ferries in operation belong to Varlack Ventures and Transportation Services, the companies franchised to run the St. Thomas to St. John ferry route.

However, the two new boats will belong to the V.I. government and be operated by the franchisees. At the end of January, Smalls said he expected the new vessels would be operational for the public by the end of February.

On Friday, Smalls told The Daily News the last piece to be put in place is the final Coast Guard inspection and certification of the franchised operators.

Coast Guard spokesman Ricardo Castrodad said Friday that the inspections done in Louisiana, where they were built, were for sea-worthiness.

"These two ferries have already been inspected and received documents of inspection good for five years," Castrodad said.

However, when the boats came to the U.S. Virgin Islands, they passed out of one port zone and into another. That requires another set of inspections, these more specifically geared to the operator.

"They will go over some drills on the proficiency of handling the vessel," Castrodad said.

The drills will include an "abandon ship" exercise, a "man overboard" rescue and other safety and security drills, according to Castrodad.

The only obstacle is scheduling a time for the inspections with the Coast Guard and the two ferry operators.

"They're close to coming online," Castrodad said. "As soon as the company schedules inspection with us, we'll be ready to go and inspect."

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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