On Friday, as a crowd of Eastern Shipbuilding shipyard workers gathered at the water’s edge to watch, the tugboat Colonel eased from its mooring at 1:55 p.m. with the Staten Island Ferry SSG Michael H. Ollis in tow, embarking on its approximately 12-day journey around Florida and up the East Coast for delivery to the New York Department of Transportation.
“We’re very pleased to see the Ollis come to fruition,” said Lance Lemcool, sales and marketing vice-president of Eastern Shipbuilding in Port St. Joe. “It’s a fine boat, and we can’t wait to show it off to New Yorkers.”
Arriving at the Eastern Shipbuilding facility just over six months ago, the Ollis “is complete. It’s passenger-ready, (with) a fine design, state-of-the-art, lots of environmentally friendly aspects to it,” Lemcool said. “We’re really excited to see it leave and go do what we’ve built it to do, which is carry passengers in New York.”
As he got ready to video the departure, Jamie Keel, Eastern’s vice-president of commercial shipbuilding, said “the credit goes to all these guys out here in the yard, some of the most hard-working guys I know”
A few days earlier, on August 4, Eastern hosted a media day in order to show off their finished product on a guided tour. Tour hosts were Lemcool, Keel, and Henry Pelusi, facility security manager.
“There are a lot of dangers in a shipyard, so keep your hardhat on,” Lemcool said at the safety briefing. Keel led the tour and fielded questions.
Keel, whose father grew up in Highland View, said the Staten Island Ferry boats are symmetrical, having no bow or stern but two separate pilot houses, two complete drive trains, two propulsion systems, and two diesel engines at each end. In a sense, it is two boats in one.
Going back and forth between Manhattan and Staten Island, the vessels are double-ended and never have to turn around, making it easier to carry up to 80,000 passengers a day. With a turnaround time of between 5 and 10 minutes, the ferry boats constantly stay busy.
“Its job is to carry people from point A (Staten Island) to point B (Manhattan),” said Keel. “But, it is very high-tech, with the newest electronics, and all kinds of features” such as device charger access on seats, Wi-Fi, and Braille markings on all handrails.
“Even though those big diesel engines are very powerful, they are Tier 4 engines,” Lemcool said. “They produce a fraction of the pollutants (compared to) previous models, due to the technology.”
The 320-foot ferry contains five doors in the lower engine deck which can be closed to create watertight compartments. More than 4,500 life jackets are on board for added safety.
The Ollis, with a capacity of 4,500 passengers, is named in honor of SSG Michael H. Ollis, a native of Staten Island who died, when his base in the Ghazni Province of Afghanistan came under attack on August 28, 2013,. As he shielded a Polish officer from the blast of a suicide bomber, he gave what Lincoln his “last full measure of devotion” to protect his ally.
Only 24 years old at the time of his death, Ollis was a member of the 10th Mountain Division out of Ft. Drum, New York. Originally posthumously awarded a Silver Star, nearly six years later his sacrifice was upgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor.
“We’re keeping the Ollis family updated on the status and on its delivery,” said Keel. “It’s really an honor to do something for an American hero.”
Because the ferry is designed for protected waters, the destination voyage to New York requires it be towed through open ocean not too far from the shore. Keel said special protections had been added to the ferry, including covering the lower deck windows and “fabricating a breakwater for the ends to keep water from coming over.”
In addition to Dann Ocean Towing’s Colonel doing the actual work, a second tugboat, the Jefferson, was attached to the trailing end of the Ollis, which Lemcool described as “a maneuvering tug, to keep the (ferry) from drifting.
“We have gotten positive feedback from the New York Department of Transportation about the ferry projects,” said Lemcool. “We’re looking forward to a good reception” upon the arrival of the Ollis to New York harbor.
Upon arrival, the Ollis will undergo scheduled drydock maintenance for underwater hull inspection and crew training before the first passenger service begins in November.
A second MV (motor vessel) Staten Island Ferry, the Sandy Ground, remains at the Eastern Shipbuilding site until its scheduled completion in late November or early December.
The third and for now final ferry “is due to arrive from the Allanton Shipyard (in Panama City) in a few weeks,” said Lemcool, “and there’s going to be two Staten Island Ferries here again.” The other, christened the Dorothy Day, will dock in October or November.
Lemcool spoke with enthusiasm about Eastern’s presence here. “We’re really excited about Port St. Joe (with) the opening of the facility. We want local employees to work for us or our subcontractors,” adding that landing the Staten Island Ferry contract was a “really high-profile project for us.”
Currently there are a little over 100 full-time employees who work alongside more than 1,000 “joiners,” workers who are hired by contractors. Growth is possible as well, with the ability to double the size of the shipyard from the present 20 acres “if I do my job right and more work comes here,” said Lemcool.
“Port St. Joe is going to be a very busy facility,” he added. “Even though there’s going to be about a six-month break (after the third and final ferry departs), we’re going to have a large dredge project to build.”
The Staten Island Ferry project “has had a huge impact on us,” said Lemcool. “It has sustained us through the COVID-19 pandemic when a lot of things were shutting down. We were able to continue working. Our workers hung in there, (and) we put in safety precautions.”
“The New York Department of Transportation was very concerned about our ability to come back from the serious setbacks” that Hurricane Michael caused to Eastern. “But Eastern Shipbuilding is a company that meets its commitments, no matter what,” said Lemcool as he watched the Ollis depart. “If we agree to do something, you can count on us to get it done.”
“As far as the (local) economy, this area has been on our radar for a long time. The space we have here, the deep water access… we intend to reach out to the surrounding communities to come here for the opportunity of stable employment. We are constantly looking for more contractors,” Lemcool said.