Boats

Alabama Will Have Nation’s First All-Electric Passenger Ferry

Boykin, Ala., a town in Wilcox County of barely 250 residents, may be the most remote community in all of Alabama. Also known as Gee’s Bend, Boykin is located in the middle of an oxbow of the Alabama River, southwest of Selma, within the state’s “Black Belt.”

The community’s alternate name comes from Joseph Gee, a landowner who settled in the area in 1816. Gee moved from North Carolina with 18 slaves to begin a cotton plantation. When he died in 1824, the number of slaves had grown to close to 50. In 1845, Gee’s nephews sold the plantation to a relative from North Carolina, Mark Pettway, who would later also move to Gee’s Bend, bringing another 100 slaves. After slavery was abolished following the Civil War, many of the former slaves became sharecroppers. The Pettway family owned the farm until the 1890s, and Pettway remains a common name in the majority African American community.

As the crow flies, Boykin is only 6 miles away from the nearest “city” of Camden, the county seat, population 2,020. But because of the oxbow, Boykin residents must take the one road in and out of the community—County Road 29—up to Alberta, head south on Alabama Highway 5 to Catherine, then east on Alabama Highway 28.

That amounts to an hour-long, 38-mile trek from Boykin to Camden.

But, thankfully, County Road 29 isn’t the only way to get to Camden from Boykin. The more expeditious route comes by way of the Gee’s Bend Ferry, which transports residents from the south end of Boykin across the Alabama River to a terminal on the river’s east bank, dropping the route to under 9 miles.

That connection is huge for Boykin, with Camden home to the nearest banks, schools, restaurants, groceries, churches, healthcare services and a car dealership.

The Gee’s Bend Ferry’s history goes back to before World War II, when a cable ferry began transporting residents between the two communities. That service, though, was terminated in 1962 during the civil rights movement. Boykin residents were taking the ferry to Camden in an effort to register to vote. Segregationists, seeking to halt the voter registration efforts of Boykin residents, terminated the ferry service.

The ferry service to and from Boykin remained suspended for more than 40 years.

A new ferry was built in the 1990s, but navigation difficulties and failed Coast Guard inspections kept the new Gee’s Bend Ferry offline. In 2006, the Alabama Department of Transportation hired Hornblower Marine Services (HMS) to bring the Gee’s Bend Ferry back into service. Since then, HMS Ferries Inc., the passenger vessel division of HMS Global Maritime, has managed the ferry, which makes five round trips daily between Boykin and Camden. The Gee’s Bend Ferry measures 95 feet by 42 feet and can carry up to 24 vehicles and 149 passengers.

Besides the role Boykin and Camden played in the civil rights movement in Alabama, the two communities have their own claims to fame. Camden is the birthplace of Henry “Hank” Aaron, and current U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions attended high school at Wilcox County High School in Camden. Boykin is famous for its artisan quilts, represented by the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective. And at the heart of those two communities is the Gee’s Bend Ferry.

Eye Toward The Future

But HMS Ferries and the Alabama Department of Transportation aren’t just honoring history with the Gee’s Bend Ferry—they’re also seeking to make history.

Thanks to a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA), the Gee’s Bend Ferry, by summertime, will be converted from its four diesel-powered John Deere engines to instead run on four 100 kw. electric propulsion engines.

“The project’s moving along very smoothly,” said Tim Aquirre, general manager of HMS Ferries Alabama, which manages the Gee’s Bend Ferry and two ferries on Mobile Bay.

Aguirre said the engineering firm Glosten did the design work for swapping the ferry from its current diesel propulsion system to a battery-electric system. The U.S. Coast Guard is now reviewing the design. Aguirre said he expects HMS to select a shipyard to perform the conversion within a month, with the Gee’s Bend Ferry back at work by June. While the Gee’s Bend Ferry is in the shipyard, HMS Ferries Alabama will move the Marissa Mae Nicole from Mobile Bay up to Gee’s Bend for uninterrupted service between Boykin and Camden.

HMS Consulting Inc. is the project manager, while Marine Interface is the propulsion system integrator. Spear Power Systems is the lithium-ion batteries supplier. American Traction Systems is supplying the power electronics, and Cochran Marine is supplying and installing the charging stations at each ferry landing. Power supply at the terminals will come from Alabama Power and Pioneer Electric Cooperative.

The cost of the project is $1.9 million, with close to $1.1 million coming from the DERA grant and the balance from the Alabama Department of Transportation.

The conversion will result in a near 100 percent reduction in diesel emissions and will drastically reduce noise from the ferry. Aguirre said that will only enhance the experience of traversing the 1.5-mile journey from terminal to terminal.

“It’s in a pristine part of the Alabama River,” he said.

When complete, the Gee’s Bend Ferry will be the first battery-electric passenger ferry in the United States and one of only two or three in the world.

HMS and the Alabama Department of Transportation also have a Phase II plan for the project, which would be a solar array to supply the ferry’s recharging power. When realized, that would make the Gee’s Bend Ferry the first all-electric ferry powered by 100 percent solar energy.

HMS and the Alabama Department of Transportation plan a rededication celebration sometime this summer once the ferry conversion is complete. For more information, visit www.geesbendferry.com.

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