How the ferry industry has successfully increased the size of vessels

Ro-pax ferries are bigger than ever, but how did the industry manage to increase their scale, while ensuring they can still safely navigate narrow harbours and operate in all weathers?  

How the ferry industry has successfully increased the size of vessels
Michael Grey is a master mariner turned maritime journalist

By Michael Grey |

While sailing onboard Townsend Thorensen’s former ferry Free Enterprise II between Dover, England, and Zeebrugge, Belgium, in 1967, I watched impressed as the master of the ferry span the vessel around within the tight confines of the harbour and backed, at what felt like astonishing speed, into the narrow jaws of the berth.  

To me, a deep-sea seaman onboard to enquire about a temporary second mate role, the 110-metre-long, 3,000gt ferry seemed big and powerful, and therefore unlikely to fit into the berth. However, the ferry master played the controls like a musical instrument, giving clear and concise orders from the helm, while allowing for a vicious cross wind and remaining alert to the diminishing distance between the vessel and the linkspan, which was called over the bridge loudspeaker by the second mate down aft. Even though he was performing this task several times a day, it was nonetheless impressive as he had just a single rudder and two engines to help him, and operated in an infinite variety of weather conditions.  

Almost 60 years later, ferry lines operate vessels of over 40,000gt on that same route, navigating the challenging waters and berthing in the same ports. However, today’s large vessels can operate in weather conditions that would have seen their smaller predecessors cancelling their sailings.  

On Baltic routes, for example, there are vessels of nearly 70,000gt and 235 metres in length being handled with precision in extreme winter weather, keeping to their demanding overnight schedules. There are ferries which offer more than 5,000 lane metres of parking for freight and cars on their vehicle decks. In a news broadcast showing footage of a large ferry sailing in a recent violent storm, the commentator suggested it was “battling the huge seas”, but the ship was moving remarkably smoothly – a testament to its size and effective stabilisation systems.  

How was it possible for the industry to scale up ferries in such a spectacular fashion, albeit in a gradual and calibrated manner, over the past half century? How can such huge hulls be manoeuvred in confined spaces, with confidence and precision, and without the assistance of tugs, even in quite extreme weather conditions?  

Finnlines’ Finncanopus


Large ferries over 235 metres long, such as Finnlines’ Finncanopus, can be handled with precision, even in extreme winter weather

As with ships in every other maritime sector, the economics of scale have driven the industry’s desire to build bigger vessels with more capacity that operate more economically and offer better facilities so brands can sell more to their passengers. But size is not everything and ferries must still be able to get in and out of ports and berths in any tides and in difficult weather conditions.  

A range of technical developments in ship outfitting and equipment have facilitated this spectacular increase in ship size and productivity over the years. Access equipment made it possible to drive through the ship and significantly speed up port operations, while stern access ramps and double-decked linkspan have done the same. In the ship-handling department, major breakthroughs have come with bow thrusters, of increasing power, that have been a boon when berthing. The advent of variable pitch propellers made it possible to precisely control power, while improved bridge controls mean the ferries can be handled from various positions. Sensors, in the shape of closed-circuit TV make the master’s job easier when performing delicate berthing manoeuvres. There are also now ferries operating with azimuthing propellers, which have replaced rudders and the need for lateral thrusters, enabling the ship handler to dynamically position the ship with great precision.  

Meanwhile, the bridge team’s manoeuvring skills can be safely honed using sophisticated and realistic simulators reflecting their ship, allowing them to develop both experience and spatial awareness. Notwithstanding all this technical help, those who are privileged to observe a master ship handler at work on today’s big ferries will surely be impressed. 

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2024 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Review for FREE to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.  

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