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Ferries as transport vessels

Ferries are a special type of vessel used to cross a body of water. As a rule, a regular service is established, i.e. ferries operate between defined ports and always follow the same route.

A distinction must be made between a ferry that connects two banks of a river and ferries that are seaworthy and operate, for example, between two countries or even between islands. Internationally, there is a wealth of ferry connections on all continents, sometimes covering long, sometimes short distances.

What are the characteristics of ferries?

Ferries differ in some respects from container ships or other cargo vessels. If car ferries or rail ferries are involved, the appropriate facilities for loading with the respective means of transport and connections to the two interconnected ports must exist.

Passenger ferries, on the other hand, require only two berths and the possibility of going ashore or on board.

Ferries for the transport of goods

Some ferries are not used for the transport of passengers, but only transport goods. In these cases, they are called RoRo ships, with the abbreviation Roll on, Roll off. Either trucks or trains roll onto the ships, which have been loaded accordingly, although in practice combinations are usually possible. A practical feature of RoRo ferries is the possibility of loading via ramps, which are located not only at the bow or stern, but also at the sides.

The advantage is above all the enormous speed, because since the goods are already on a truck or in a wagon, there is no need for reloading. Especially on short sea routes and when transporting vehicles or even paper, RoRo ferries are superior and are preferred.

The so-called RoPax ships represent a special form. The abbreviation “Pax” stands for passengers, so these are ferries that transport not only goods but also people, which is used on many busy routes.

The two largest car ferries in the world, the Stena Hollandica and the Stena Britannica, both 240 metres long, also originate from the RoPax sector. The capacity is impressive and includes 1,200 passengers as well as 230 cars and 300 trucks, which can be accommodated on 5,500 loading metres.

Since when do ferries exist?

Ferries have existed since ancient times. From the Greek mythology the gloomy ferryman Charon is known, who crosses the river of the dead with his ferry. The transport of goods by ferry also took place when the pyramids were built. According to historians, double ferries were probably used, which had a capacity of up to 90 tons and could therefore transport heavy stones.

The principle, known today as RoRo, can be traced back to the time of the crusades. Horses were transported by “gate ships” and as early as the twelfth century, whole armies were boarded.

The first railway ferry was developed by engineer Thomas Bouch. In 1851, trains ran on the ferry for the first time and after the end of the Second World War, cars were also loaded onto ferries.

The design of ferries

Ferries are characterised by a special construction method. In the meantime, almost always “block construction” is used, whereby these are prefabricated components in which electrical lines or sanitary lines have already been laid.

After the hull has been welded, only a few assembly works are required, which reduces the working time. A characteristic feature of modern ferries are the at least two flaps at the bow and stern, which must open wide to allow vehicles to get on and off board without any problems.

It is obvious that this creates particular risks, but these can be mitigated by integrating bulkheads. As soon as water enters, the bulkheads are closed to prevent the ferries from tilting. Older ships have often been retrofitted to bring them up to the latest state of the art.

Ferry propulsion systems

Classically, ferries are driven just like any other ships.

In practical terms, this means that they run on heavy fuel oil or marine diesel. In recent years, however, there has been a change in thinking, so that alternative forms of propulsion are being used more and more. For example, a natural gas ferry has been operating to Mallorca since 2019, in Berlin there are several solar ferries and in Denmark and Sweden some ferries with electric drive have also been put into service.

One of the largest fully electric ferries in the world is the connection between the Danish ports of Fynshav and Søby, but ferries that are fully electric also operate between Helsingör in Denmark and Helsingborg in Sweden. The future will show whether this is also a trend towards covering longer distances.

The most important ferry routes and ferry ports in the world

Ferries operate in Germany as well as in Europe and the whole world. A listing would include both smaller ferries across the major rivers such as the Elbe, Rhine or Elbe as well as the much frequented routes within Europe.

The most important ferry connections within Europe include the journeys between the port of Barcelona and the Balearic Islands or the connection between France and Corsica, whereby both Nice and Marseille are connected with Ajaccio.

Also important is the ferry between Genoa and Tunis. In Greece, almost all the islands are connected by a dense network of ferries. The port of Piraeus on the mainland is a good starting point.

Of course the many ferries between the European mainland and Great Britain should not go unmentioned, especially the route between Dover and Calais, between Dover and Dunkerqueo or between Harwich and Hamburg or Hoek van Holland.

The hardly complete list is rounded off by the passage from Kiel to Oslo, from Lübeck to Malmö or between Rostock and Trelleborg.

In Southeast Asia there are numerous connections between the individual states, with Singapore in particular being one of the most important ports.

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