Cowes ferry comes to Connecticut

William Raynor looks at a unique, and rather ironic, transatlantic partnership
A Shipbuilding yard on the south coast of England has signed a deal that could help to revolutionise the passenger ferry industry in one of the world's biggest and, in this context, most backward, markets - the United States.

As a symbol of resurgence on both sides, and a way of burying an old and bloody colonial hatchet, the deal also has other intriguing connotations. The signatories are FBM Marine, of Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, and Pequot River Shipworks, of New London, Connecticut.

Pequot River Shipworks is owned by the 340 remaining descendants of the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Tribe whose territory, until European settlement in the early 17th century, covered 250 square miles of Connecticut's

south-east coastal belt, and whose population of 10,000 to 15,000 was decimated by epidemics of settler-borne disease and massacre at the hands of the English in 1637. The survivors were then exiled, and their river was renamed the Thames.

"In the circumstances, the Pequots teaming up now with an English shipyard may seem slightly ironical," concedes former full-time FBM executive Mike McSorley. As Pequot River Shipworks' vice-president (Sales & Marketing), with a salary paid 50-50 by each company, he heads the joint-selling venture they have set up with the clear intention of becoming US market leaders.

Specifically, their deal concerns "fast ferries", vessels generally defined as being able to carry more than 50 passengers at average speeds of more than 25 knots (28.5mph), and constitute one of the fastest-growing sectors of maritime transport.

Because of the Jones - or "Foreign Bottoms" - Act, which Congress passed in 1924 to forbid the use on internal routes of vessels built elsewhere, the US has, according to Mr McSorley, been largely unaffected by advances made in 1950s or 1960s. "In fast-ferry terms," he says, "it's a Third- World country."

In terms of the deal, Pequot River Shipworks, formed for the purpose, has been granted a licence to build a single FBM Tri Cat - a futuristic, 45-metre catamaran, seating 320 passengers and able to cruise at 50 knots.

With further irony, at the invocation of the tribal shaman, Slow Turtle, the Tri Cat was named Sassacus, after a legendary Pequot chief. "When it's completed next summer," says Mr McSorley, "it'll be the biggest and fastest fast-ferry ever seen in American waters, and we're planning to demonstrate it all round the coast."

Then it will be used to whisk punters - "in airline comfort, club class plus" - over Long Island Sound on a 90-mile, two-hour run between Manhattan and Foxwoods Resort, described by its literature as "the largest casino in the western hemisphere".

At its own yard on the River Medina, FBM has built five sister craft during the past three years, is currently working on a further two, and has orders for three more on its books, all for service in Hong Kong.

FBM has also granted Pequot River Shipworks full access to its technology and the specifications of its seven other fast-ferry designs.

For FBM, the immediate financial gains will be small. From keel to fit- out, the Tri Cats it builds in Cowes normally cost $10m to $11m (pounds 6.3m to pounds 7m). With start-up expenses, Sassacus is expected to cost approximately $14m, of which FBM will receive a standard 5 per cent as licence fee. Even with the extras it is providing, it is therefore unlikely to make more than $1m.

"But that's only for starters," insists Mr McSorley. "We're already looking to secure orders in the US for three further Tri Cats and six other boats during the next year, and with each one that comes through, the fees will stack up. Then there's Canada, South America, and serious interest in the Caribbean. The potential is fantastic."

If so, the obvious question is whether Pequot River Shipworks or FBM will be able to cope. With a turnover of pounds 35m and direct workforce of 260, FBM may be a big fish in its home pond, but is still a minnow in the pool of international shipbuilding. Being new, with 65 employees and no turnover to show, its US partner has still not begun to swim.

Yet outward appearances can be deceptive, and underlying reality suggests that Mr McSorley's confidence may not be entirely misplaced. Each of the companies has a reservoir of the necessary expertise on its doorstep; behind both are expanding empires with enough financial muscle between them to prove him right.