The Gee’s Bend Ferry will be back operating in the next few weeks. But it’s not your father’s ferry.
The boat has been retrofitted to become the first electric-powered passenger ferry in the United States.
It left Master Marine shipyard in Bayou La Batre on Feb. 12 and is scheduled to arrive Sunday, Feb. 17, in Camden, where it will undergo testing and resume service in about 10 days.
“Alabama Power is proud to have played a part in a project that makes the ferry more dependable and efficient,” said Alabama Power Camden Business Office Manager Floyd Harris.
Gee’s Bend, an enclave of some 300 residents, lies on the Alabama River across from the Wilcox County seat of Camden. Gee’s Bend residents have a 38-mile round-trip drive to Camden, having to cross the river on a bridge near Millers Ferry Lock and Dam. Camden is home to the courthouse, banks, restaurants and other amenities unavailable in Gee’s Bend.
The 15-minute ferry ride across the Alabama River is aboard a Hornblower Marine Services ferry operated by the Alabama Department of Transportation. The ferry has at times been unreliable because of the diesel engines breaking down. Discussions began three years ago to replace the engines with more-reliable electric-powered batteries for the 18-car-capacity ferry.
Two years ago, Alabama Power was at the table to evaluate the feasibility of converting the ferry to batteries. When the assessment was affirmative, the company upgraded a 2-mile stretch of power lines to carry enough energy to recharge the batteries at the Camden launch site.
“It was challenging, since the ferry’s engines have to keep running, even when docked, to keep it pushed against the on-off ramp,” said Tyler Cobb, a marketing representative for Alabama Power who was involved in the project. “But our specialist along with the ferry’s engineers came up with just the right setup to keep the batteries fully charged.”
The conversion was funded through a $1 million Environmental Protection Agency grant matched by $765,000 from ALDOT.
“This could be a big win for the state, the community and the industry,” said Tim Aguirre, general manager of HMS Ferries Alabama.
HMS also operates ferry service connecting Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines at the mouth of Mobile Bay.