Volume 16 • Issue 21 | October 21 - 27, 2003

Demonstrators object to wakes from ferries

By Sascha Brodsky

A day after last week’s Staten Island ferry disaster, demonstrators protested what they called unsafe conditions in New York’s waterways.

A gaggle of about 30 boats ranging from kayaks to sailboats gathered Thursday in the windy waters off Pier 81 at 38th St. & West Side Highway in front of the New York Waterway Ferry Terminal. Many of the boaters were holding signs reading “SLOW”, an acronym that some activists have coined for Safe Level of Wakes.

Activists said that the huge increase in ferry traffic and high speeds by some ferry operators create waves or “wakes” in nautical parlance that are dangerous. The wakes are hurting marine wildlife, damaging boats and causing unsafe conditions.

“It’s just a matter of time before we see another accident,” said Lezlee Peterzell-Bellanich, a yacht broker and member of the Safe Wakes Coalition, which organized the event.

While the timing of the rally was coincidental and wakes are not believed to be the cause of the Staten Island accident, Peterzell-Bellanich said that the tragedy would draw attention to the Coalition’s safety drive.

With so many businesses, people, and programs adversely impacted, the Safe Wakes Coalition is seeking an Environmental Impact Study or similar assessment to evaluate and document the harmful and dangerous wakes caused in the harbor before additional ferry services or terminals are expanded without any consideration for other maritime users,” Mark Davidoff, vice president of New York Cruise Lines told the rally. “If government is going to promote private ferry services then they must protect those adversely impacted.”

Davidoff said that harmful wakes have cost “millions of dollars of damage” including personal injury damages and claims and lost business to excursion and charter boat operators. He also said that the problems include damages to piers and historic ships at the South Street Seaport.

The protestors singled our ferry operator New York Waterway as the biggest culprit in causing the large wakes. But New York Waterway said that it was working to maintain safe speeds in populated areas and on Thursday announced a high-tech global positioning system to better control its ferries.

“This global positioning system has profound implications for the mass transit industry. It allows NY Waterway to further improve customer service, better coordinating the arrival of ferries and buses, and to better control ferry operations and reduce wake impacts so we can continue to be a good neighbor on the water,” New York Waterway president Arthur E. Imperatore, Jr. in a statement.

On the ferry side, the G.P.S. allows NY Waterway to keep ferries out of wake sensitive areas. Pilots and the command center have computer-generated maps showing these areas and the location of all ferries. If a ferry crosses into a “no-go” area, an alarm sounds in the pilothouse and the command center instantly contacts the pilot. The data system also records the incident, including the name of the pilot, so there is real time accountability. The same system helps keep ferries to a prescribed 6 knots in low-wake areas.

Imperatore has said previously that it is up to government officials to put in mechanisms at marinas to protect docked ships from ferry wakes.

Tom Fox, President of New York Water Taxi, a rival of New York Waterway, attended the press conference in support of the demonstrators. He said, “large wakes are extremely dangerous,” and that his company has spent a lot of money to buy boats that create very little wake.

The coalition wants the federal government to regulate the waterways. Peterzell-Bellanich said that the U.S. Coast Guard had told the group that it could only step in to regulate the waterways if there was an accident involving the ferries that caused death or caused more than $25,000 in damage. The Coast Guard did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Ferries and private boats helped evacuate thousands of people after the World Trade Center attacks cut off normal commuter routes. Since 9/11, ferry operators, especially New York Waterway, have greatly expanded their routes.


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