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People carriers

Ferrying people

Ferries developed from the earliest paddle steamers which revolutionised the crossing of narrow seas, like the English Channel, the Irish Sea, the Baltic and the Mediterranean.  Ferries grew in size to carry more passengers and offer better facilities, including cabins on longer crossings.  Screws replaced paddles in the late 19th century, and ferries were amongst the first ships propelled by turbines, as speed has always been a major selling point of a ferry.

The big change in the last fifty years has been that ferries now cater not only for passengers but also their cars, and often freight vehicles as well.  Indeed, some ferries are intended entirely for freight, with accommodation only for lorry drivers (see Ro-Ro vessels, screen DS6F).

Design problems

To ensure quick turnrounds in port, ferries need to load and unload vehicles as quickly as possible.  The ferry will have ramps at bow and stern, so that vehicles can drive in over the stern, say at Dover, and straight out via the bow doors when the vehicle reaches Calais.  However, several accidents (e.g. Herald of Free Enterprise, Estonia) have shown that bow doors, in particular, are vulnerable in case of human error or violent weather.  Once even a small amount of water enters the extensive vehicle deck, it can have a disastrous effect on stability, and accumulating at one side in the event of a roll, can cause a capsize.  The answer has been to divide up the vehicle deck, with a transverse bulkhead, but it has been difficult to fit this on older vessels.

The size of a ferry is determined very much by the size of the ports it sails between and the amount of traffic regularly on offer.  Some of the largest ferries are the so called ‘cruise ferries’.  As well as offering a service between two countries, these also aim to attract passengers who want a short but relaxing sea voyage.  Often these ferries offer opportunities to dine well, gamble in a casino or drink at cheap shipboard prices. 

Fast ferries

The search for even greater speed has led to the development of a new generation of ferry.  Perhaps stimulated by the success of hovercraft, yards have built hydrofoils, catamarans and other craft which can travel at 40 knots.  Whilst successful in reducing journey times for foot passengers and those taking their cars, they have not succeeded in replacing conventional ferries.  In high winds and heavy seas, fast ferries are unable to run.  The operator therefore needs to have a conventional ferry running, not only for freight vehicles, but also as back-up to maintain services in bad weather.  


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