Flying low, from the Inner Harbor to Rock Hall

Ferry service would use hydrofoils hovering 3 feet above water


Look - out there on the Chesapeake. Is it a bird? A plane?

It looks a little like both. And if a Baltimore maritime design firm gets its way, the company's futuristic hydrofoil will be zipping over the bay between Baltimore and Rock Hall on the upper Eastern Shore seven times a day.

Maritime Applied Physics Corp., a company that has built two hydrofoils for the Navy, plans to launch two high-speed, 80-passenger ferry boats that will shuttle tourists from the Inner Harbor to Rock Hall and back beginning in summer 2007.

That assumes the company can find someone to finance the venture and get the Coast Guard to approve it - neither of which is assured.

The aluminum-hulled ships, with steel "underwater wings," will be driven by diesel engines that propel the craft at 50 mph, hovering about three feet above the water. The promoters say the ferry would turn an 80-mile car trip that takes two hours in traffic into a 30-minute boat ride from dock to dock.

Officials describe the ride as a bit like being inside an airliner, with enclosed cabins that are heated in the winter and air conditioned in the summer. They envision a coffee bar and wireless networking hookups.

But there are two roadblocks: money and the Coast Guard. "The biggest hurdle is the regulatory approval," said Mark Rice, president of the firm.

The proposal comes 21 months after a water taxi capsized in the Inner Harbor, killing five people. Considering that and the boat's potential speed, Rice said he anticipates a thorough review from the Coast Guard.

"Anything that's high speed is going to be getting a lot of scrutiny," he said.

The service initially will be aimed at tourists and will not need approval from the Maryland Public Service Commission unless it expands to serve commuters.

Getting started

Rice is seeking investors to set up a private company to operate the service. Startup costs will be $10 million: half of that to build the two hydrofoils and the rest to run the service for a year.

Whether a new ferry can survive financially remains to be seen - the recent record is not good. A ferryboat known as the Chesapeake Flyer started making runs from Rock Hall to Baltimore in 1990. A week after it began operating, the twin-hulled catamaran hit a submerged object at the mouth of the Patapsco River, damaging the vessel and putting it temporarily out of service.

The boat never drew the crowds its operators hoped for, and they gave up in 1994.

"Ferry services come and go all the time," said Susan Harris, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Ferries, a state-subsidized operation that includes 500 "sailings" a day and is one of the largest ferry systems in the world.

Harris said that a key to success is reliability and reasonable ticket prices. "Marketing is certainly going to be crucial," Harris said. "You can't charge too much, and that's a big issue these days with the cost of fuel."

Reliability key

Rice said he's met with economic development officials in Kent County and talked to others in Rock Hall who told him reliability was a major factor in the demise of the previous ferry service. Having two ships will help ensure reliability, he said. If one is out of service, the other will still be available.

"We think there's an unfilled market for these smaller boats," he said.

Most passenger ferries operate using much larger craft, which use about 25 percent more fuel than the smaller, lighter hydrofoils, Rice said.

Hydrofoil passenger boats are manufactured by the Boeing Corp. in the United States and by companies in Italy and Russia, Rice said. But they are still relatively rare here.

Engineers tested a prototype hull this fall at the University of Maryland wind tunnel in College Park, where it withstood 100-mph head winds, Rice said.

The design and testing were financed with an $18,500 grant from the Maryland Industrial Partnerships Program, a state program that connects firms with experts at the university. Rice said about 40 people will be employed building the ships, which will cost $2.5 million each.

$8 to $16 fares

Rice envisions seven round trips a day, shuttling tourists from Baltimore to bed-and-breakfast lodgings on the Eastern Shore, and taking shore residents in the opposite direction to Orioles and Ravens games. Fares could be as low as $8 or as high as $16, depending on passenger volume, Rice said.

If he's successful, Rice said he envisions building even faster ships that run from St. Michaels to Baltimore at 80 mph, making the trip in less than an hour.

The company was formed in 1986 and has built two hydrofoils for the Navy, Rice said.

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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