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Made on the Gulf Coast, first of New York’s new ferries heads north

The first of a fleet of new ferry boats, destined for service on the rivers and waterways that connect New York City's five boroughs, navigates past a drawbridge on the Caloosahatchee River, east of Lake Okeechobee in Florida March 24, 2017. The Ferry, built in Alabama and Louisiana, is cutting across Florida via rivers, canals and Lake Okeechobee, headed for the Eastern Seaboard and, eventually, New York.
The first of a fleet of new ferry boats, destined for service on the rivers and waterways that connect New York City's five boroughs, navigates past a drawbridge on the Caloosahatchee River, east of Lake Okeechobee in Florida March 24, 2017. The Ferry, built in Alabama and Louisiana, is cutting across Florida via rivers, canals and Lake Okeechobee, headed for the Eastern Seaboard and, eventually, New York. The New York Times

The captain and crew of the New York City-bound ferryboat known simply as Hull 200 spotted their first big alligator just before noon on Friday. And, eagerly anticipated as it was, it turned out to be a bad omen.

Their delight at seeing the reptilian menace slide into the canal they were navigating had barely subsided when the boat jerked to a stop. Three and a half days into its maiden voyage, Hull 200 was stuck in the Central Florida mud with no help in sight.

Boats get trapped in muck all the time, of course. But this sudden halt interrupted a crucial test for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious plan to start a citywide ferry service this summer.

Hull 200 — which will eventually be renamed — was the first completed piece of a fleet under construction at shipyards in Alabama and Louisiana. So it served as the bell cow on the journey north from the Gulf Coast.

For the most part, the trip involves hugging the Eastern Seaboard for more than 1,000 miles in a ferryboat designed to zip between landings in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. But the first obstacle is the Florida Peninsula, which adds a few days and hundreds of miles to the schedule.

“It’s a long journey in a small boat,” said James Caspers, a veteran mariner who is the acting captain of Hull 200. “It’s like Kon-Tiki,” he said, referring to the famed voyage of the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl.

Hornblower Cruises and Events, the company that the city chose to operate the ferry service, decided to try to save time and avoid trouble by cutting across the width of Florida instead of going around it, where any rough waters or high winds might prove more of a challenge for the relatively light vessels. For about five hours on Friday, that seemed like a wise choice.

After three days in the Gulf of Mexico, the boat, an 85-foot catamaran, pulled away from a dock at the Fort Myers Yacht Basin on the west coast of Florida in the predawn darkness and headed east through the Caloosahatchee River. Along with Caspers, it carried seven men who had come aboard in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, the home of Horizon Shipbuilding. But only one of them, Clip Hopkins, was from Alabama, and he was also the only one who had ever taken this obscure shortcut.

Standing beside Caspers near the helm on the top deck, Hopkins was keeping a sharp eye out for anything that might pose a hazard to the fast-moving ferry. Like the others, he wore khaki slacks, but his were the only pants cinched by a belt made from the skin of a copperhead snake that he had run over with his truck.

In his regular job, Hopkins, 52, captains a small ferry that carries cars and trucks to and from Gee’s Bend on the Alabama River. He said he was “just tickled” to be bound for New York for the first time.

“I like my job,” Hopkins said. “But sometimes it’s like ‘Groundhog Day.’ It gets kind of monotonous.”

He did not seem to mind that he was bunking each night with the other men in the passenger compartment of a commuter ferry, eating food stored in an ice chest and sleeping on inflatable mattresses between the rows of seats. The only exception was one of the younger men who had chosen to sleep in a hammock strung near the ceiling.

The concession stand in the rear of the compartment was stocked with cereal, fruit, granola bars and microwaveable macaroni and cheese. The microwave and a coffee maker were strapped to a table with bungee cords. Despite the makeshift quarters and the lack of a shower, the only hardship any of the men cited was having to share one balky toilet.

Hopkins, a Florida native, said he had navigated the Caloosahatchee and the canals that connect Lake Okeechobee, in the center of the state, to the two coasts – but only in pleasure boats. Not even Caspers, who has worked on ships all over the globe, had ever made this crossing.

But Caspers and the executives of Hornblower had studied charts and determined that the shallow canals were deep enough for the ferry, whose hulls protrude less than 6 feet below the surface. Bill Buckley, Hornblower’s director of marine operations, said he had crossed Florida in a similar ferry without incident.

So Caspers and his ad hoc crew plowed eastward for a daylong leg of the journey that would require passing through five locks and under several drawbridges. Among the men onboard were four who had recently been hired by Hornblower to be captains of the Citywide Ferry fleet. The others were an Indian-born engineer employed by Hornblower and a Cuban-born representative of the company that consulted with Hornblower on its choice of French engines for the ferries.

Hornblower has been hiring captains, deckhands and mechanics in New York in anticipation of starting up the first three new routes of the ferry service sometime this summer. Cameron Clark, a senior vice president of Hornblower, said the ferry service hired 27 deckhands last week through a Workforce1 employment center in Brooklyn, bringing its workforce to about 90.

Clark said three of the newly hired captains aboard Hull 200 would return to the Gulf Coast to help bring other ferries north when they were ready. After the boats are built, they are put through sea trials, which involve loading the vessels with bags of sand to simulate carrying a full complement of passengers, Clark said.

Once cleared by the Coast Guard, the boats will probably set out for New York as “more of an armada,” Clark said. City officials are still deciding what to name the boats, but Clark said the city’s Department of Education had invited second-graders to submit ideas. One of their suggestions: Friendship Express.

But the first order of business was getting Hull 200 to New York Harbor.

As crew members waited near sunrise for the first drawbridge they encountered to open, they anticipated a slow-moving day whose highlights would involve seeing alligators and possibly a manatee. Rohan Sharma, the engineer, shared video he had shot with his cellphone of dolphins racing the ferry in the Gulf of Mexico.

But for the first few hours on the water Friday, the only notable animal sightings were of cattle grazing along the banks of the Caloosahatchee. Caspers, a jovial amateur singer and actor, occasionally belted out a bit of “Ol’ Man River” or some other show tune. He urged one of the young captains, Ryan Messina, to break out the trumpet he plays in jazz clubs in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

By midmorning, the river had connected to what is essentially a canal running along the northern edge of the Everglades. Known as the Okeechobee Waterway, most of it is man-made to help control flooding.

After the boat passed through the third of five locks on the waterway, Caspers swung it around to head toward Clewiston in the rim canal that skirts the south shore of Lake Okeechobee.

Hopkins, who pronounced the canal a “ditch,” announced the first gator sighting — a small one in the water with only its snout above the surface. Members of the crew hurried to the port side of the decks to get a glimpse. James Arnpriester, a bearded young captain, declared: “That’s it for me. That’s all I wanted to see on this trip.”

But a few minutes later, they spotted a much larger gator slinking off the left bank as the ferry’s low wake approached. Almost immediately, the ferry ceased gliding through the canal. The pontoon on the starboard side of its hull had sliced into a mound of mud on the bottom that pulled the boat toward the right bank.

The captain cut the engines and assessed the situation. The electronic instruments indicated that the water should have been deep enough to pass through, but the boat was clearly stuck. The mood onboard shifted from calm to perturbed.

Maneuvering out of the muck could have been easy, but Caspers was concerned about doing any damage to the hull or propellers of a new boat that cost close to $4 million. He called a towing company for help but learned that it could offer no assistance anytime soon. Then he called all hands to the top deck to explain that they might be spending the night right there, several feet from shore in a canal that they knew contained at least two gators.

An officer from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission rode up in a small boat and lowered a pole off its stern to measure the depth around the ferry. The 9-foot pole was not even hitting bottom, he said with a shrug.

“You must have hit it just right is all I can say,” he added.

The captain listed the options: Wait for a tow; try to lighten the ferry by dumping a tank of 200 gallons of potable water and hope to float off; or start up the engine on the port side, which was still floating, and use it to turn the boat clockwise until it was safe to start the starboard engine.

As long as there were no rocks down there, everyone agreed, the third option should work. And it did. After two hours there, Hull 200 was back in motion, but headed west.

Caspers said he decided that the narrow canal was not suited to the ferry, which had its propellers set several feet from its center.

Getting past Florida was going to involve going the long way around, after all: south of Key West, through the Straits of Florida and past Miami. But it was too late to make it back through all of the locks, which close at 5 p.m.

So, after passing through one, Caspers parked the ferry for the night at a public dock across the street from City Hall in Moore Haven, a small town with few accommodations.

Janet Metzler, who lives nearby, was cooking steaks and corn on a grill by the dock as a pregame meal for her 15-year-old son, Patrick, and his high school baseball teammates.

“You stopped in the wrong place,” Metzler said, as she served the boys; her husband, Paul; and her daughters, Kristal and Daniella. “There’s no restaurants. The Burger King closed. There’s no cabs, no hotels.”

But the crew was invited to the Fraternal Order of Eagles club a short walk away, where, they said, they were treated to a steak dinner.

“They couldn’t have been nicer,” said Albert DeMange, a new captain who lives in Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn.

On Saturday morning, the crew members stowed their air mattresses and got Hull 200 on its way, retracing its path from Fort Myers.

“We tried,” Caspers said. “It cost us a day or two and a little excitement.” He said he was glad they were stuck only briefly because he “never wanted to be a famous captain.”

Caspers said they were waiting to head south after reaching Fort Myers because the winds near Key West were creating waves as high as 6 feet, about twice what he thought the ferry could handle. He said the rerouted voyage to New York could take one to two weeks, depending on the weather. On Sunday, the ferry had managed to reach Key West.

Clark, of Hornblower, said he accepted the captain’s decision but would wait to decide whether all of the ferries would have to follow that course. Doing so would require 45 to 60 additional days of travel time for a fleet that will eventually include 19 boats.

But Clark said he did not foresee having to postpone starting the ferry service because he had budgeted extra time for just such a setback.

“This is happening,” he said.