After repairs, ferry opens briefly before another closure

The Southport-Fort Fisher ferry will be out of service until October after the ramp system failed last week.

On August 27, as workers raised the ramp off a loaded ferry so it could depart from Southport for its 10 a.m. trip, a cable snapped on the side nearest to the terminal building. The workers immediately stopped lifting it.

The staff could not let the ferry to leave the terminal since the entire ramp could fall into the water if the other line broke without a boat underneath to catch it.

“There’s no way I could just leave that thing hanging in the air and just run over to Fort Fisher,” said Kirk Pistel, operations manager at Southport, “‘cause if that had fallen, there’s no way in heck we’d ever be able to get it out.”

The ferry turned around so the vehicles could pull forward off the boat, but as the workers went to lower the ramp, the other cable snapped. The ramp crashed onto the boat’s deck at an angle, bending the metal on one side. Thirteen-and-a-half tons of counterweight dropped more than 20 feet underwater, burying itself in the muck.

Because the ramp could not be lowered any more, two steel sheets were leaned against it so the cars’ tires could make it onto the elevated ramp. Some uneasy passengers had deckhands drive their cars for them. It was 12:30 p.m. by the time the passengers, with an estimated 15 cars, were off the ferry and had received their refunds.

It’s still unclear why the system failed. The cables were replaced in February.

“We’ve never had one snap like that one did,” Pistel said, “so we don’t know why it did it.”

On the day of the failure, Pistel was hoping repairs would be finished by the end of the week. After further inspection, the Department of Transportation is aiming for an October 1 opening. Hurricane Dorian is already expected to impact the schedule.

Both ferries, which are needed to be under the ramp during repair work, have been moved to the shipyard at Manns Harbor in Dare County. The department may bring a crane barge so it can begin work, according to John Abel, marine maintenance engineer at NCDOT.

The metal where the ramp was dented needs to be removed and replaced, as well as the ropes. As for the counterweight, those are unrecoverable.

Abel said the department may install an electric chain hoist instead of replacing the counterweights for the time being, since the ferry plans to close again soon after for upgrades, which are tentatively scheduled for this winter.

The electric chain hoist would raise and lower the ramp. Those parts are already in the department’s inventory and wouldn’t have to be fabricated, unlike a counterweight system. The department has to see if electric wiring will adapt to the system.

The ferry will close again for three months in 2020, possibly as early as January, to replace the cable systems with hydraulic ones which would prevent another failure. Those plans have been in the works for the past two years, but cannot begin yet since the parts are still being designed.

For the next few months, crew members will be working at other ferries such as Cherry Branch, Hatteras and Ocracoke. A small staff will remain on duty in Southport for security and answering phones.

Pistel will remain at the terminal, using the time off to “spruce up the place.” He plans to paint and landscape while operations are suspended.

This is not the first time the ferry has been down. Most recently, it was out of service for a week and two days after Hurricane Florence. Other times it has shut down when the river was too high or too low, as well as for the occasional mechanical issues; however, those closures typically only last a day.

Tourism director Randy Jones said the closure will have an effect on businesses and tourism stats. He’s hoping to notify travelers before their trips to avoid disappointment.

“People adjust,” Jones said. “They realize it does have an effect on the short term, but in the long term, keeping a safe ferry system — that’s priority one.”

Until the ferry reopens, drivers will have to use U.S. Highway 17 and N.C. Highway 87 to travel between Southport and the Wilmington area, a 45-minute to an hour-long drive, depending on the destination.

Ferry pass holders will receive an extension on their passes equal to the length of the service outage.