Three new Outer Banks ferries will be capable of carrying more people and travel faster than ever on the state’s busiest route.

Two vehicle-carrying vessels will have the capacity to transport 630 more people a day than the smaller boats they are replacing. A new passenger-only ferry can haul another roughly 300 people daily at nearly four times the speed of conventional vessels.

The new ferries could carry an additional 93,000 people over a 130-day season to Ocracoke where the villagers cater to the tourism industry.

“Bigger. Better. Faster. That’s what we like,” said Bill Rich, manager of Hyde County, which includes Ocracoke.

The new vessels are the most ever completed or announced by the North Carolina Ferry Division at one time since the early 1990s. Before that, the newest one arrived four years ago. Most of the vessels are 20 years old or more.

“It’s like driving a 1980 Ford pickup compared to a new Ford pickup,” said Jed Dixon, deputy director of the agency.

The ferry system is the second-largest of its kind in the United States, operating 21 boats on seven regular routes across five bodies of water.

Six ferries each make five round trips a day from Hatteras Island to docks at the north end of Ocracoke, carrying about 650,000 people a year, down from the peak of one million annually in 2007.

The numbers fell in part when the state was forced to abandon a shorter 35-minute trip five years ago to avoid a shoaling channel. Ferries plied a longer route of about an hour where sandbars and shallow waters are less troublesome, but it cut down on the number of trips and caused long car lines. Ferry officials determined that about 40,000 fewer people took the trip each year because of extended wait times, Rich said.

The new boats are expected to solve the problem, Dixon said. The current smaller ferries carry 26 cars compared to 40 for the new larger models. Each vehicle is estimated to carry 2.5 people.

The new $4.3 million passenger-only ferry is expected to arrive here in February with the ability to carry 98 people from Hatteras Island to Ocracoke Village's south end. It would make three trips a day with ticket prices up to $15 round trip. The catamaran-style vessel, named the Ocracoke Express, will cruise at 28 knots and make the trip in about an hour, Dixon said.

Bob Chesnut, owner of Ride the Wind Surf Shop in Ocracoke Village said his customers are looking forward to riding the passenger ferry and skipping the long lines.

"They're all super excited about it," Chesnut said. "What's not to like?"

A new 180-foot $9.7 million vessel, named the Rodanthe, arrives in March with the capacity for 40 cars.

Two others of the same size costing a total of $22.9 million are expected to be completed in 2020. The Avon and the Salvo will replace the aging ferries, Kinnakeet and the Chicamacomico. One of the 2020 arrivals will replace an older ferry on the Neuse River near New Bern.

Four parking lanes are all on one side of the boat while the lounge and pilot house rest at the opposite end instead of near the center. An 18-wheel tractor trailer carrying supplies to Ocracoke will be able to pull on and off more easily, Dixon said. Propellers that operate in all directions allow the boats to maneuver around the docks better.

Ferry captains run their boats more like video gamers than seaman. Joysticks for steering replaced spoked ship’s wheels years ago. Paper maps are still available onboard, but now GPS, radar, Coast Guard buoys and weather appear on flat touchscreens that all communicate with each other.

Captains can see a boat moving on the radar screen, touch it and see the vessel’s name, course and speed.

Still, big windshields with a wide view of the waters are still standard, Dixon said.

“All of these electronics are good," he said. "But you still have to look out the window."

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