By John Sicinski, Maid of the Mist Executive Vice President (as printed in Foghorn magazine)
What a difference 177 years makes. When the first Maid of the Mist first launched from the shores of the Niagara River in Niagara Falls, N.Y., a steamboat ferried a stagecoach and horses the 2,200 feet to the Canadian shores. It was 1846, and a new era of international travel was born. Fast forward to 2023. Nary a wisp of steam or exhaust fumes comes from the silent, all-electric motors that power the James V. Glynn and Nikola Tesla, the first vessels of their kind in the United States
The e-boats were built in 2020 at PVA member Maid of the Mist’s drydock and maintenance facility which is located several hundred yards downriver from the launch where annually about 1.5 million passengers are provided an unrivaled experience as they are taken to the base of the American Bridal Veil and Horseshoe falls as hundreds of thousands of gallons of water thunder over the falls every second.
Maid of the Mist President Christopher M. Glynn was the visionary behind the monumental effort to transition from twin diesel engines on Maid of the Mist VI and to the zero-emission boats of today. He wanted to stake the Maid as an eco-tourism innovator. “It makes perfect sense for Maid of the Mist to be a world leader with the implementation of this green technology,” said Glynn. “Our vessels transport our guests from around the world to the base of Niagara Falls, one of the world’s largest sources of clean hydroelectric power which provides the power to recharge the batteries that are housed below deck.”
Glynn noted the e-boats support the New York State Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation commitment to transition to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030. “We are already there, and our example is inspiring other organizations across New York, the U.S., and around the world to take a close look at the myriad benefits of going green,” Glynn continued.
ABB Marine & Ports, a PVA associate member, integrated the ship-to-shore battery charging connection, supplied Maid of the Mist with switchboards, drives, and the integrated control system.
Every project is unique and therefore provides the opportunity to learn from the experience according to Ed Schwarz, ABB vice president, Sales Marine Systems, Americas. He noted, “The major lesson learned was the importance of a local, domestic execution team which allowed for these innovative, new vessels to be delivered during a global pandemic. This would not have been possible without local engineers to perform site visits, commissioning, and follow-on service support.”
The project also allowed ABB’s local team to grow by gaining a deeper understanding of U.S. Coast Guard requirements when it came to implementing hybrid/electric technology which now benefits all current and future U.S. projects that utilize energy storage.
Initially, there was a learning curve for the Coast Guard as it adjusted to the new dynamic of e-boats. “Fortunately, our experienced marine inspectors already have an established process for conducting inspections and relying on a systemic approach helps anytime we need to accommodate new technologies and facilitating change without stymieing industry progress,” said Commander Jeff B. Bybee, U.S. Coast Guard, Sector Buffalo Prevention Department Head. “More specifically, this includes a thorough engineering plan review and utilizing the expertise of the Marine Safety Center. After several years of successful operation, we are more familiar with the propulsion system but never hesitate to seek technical guidance within or outside the Coast Guard. Our strong relationship with Maid of the Mist has made it easy for us to conduct on-the-job training and learn from the system manufacturers, technical reps, and crew.”
Reaching out to the local Officer in Charge, Marine Inspection (OCMI) early and often created a dialogue that allowed industry and Coast Guard to understand the complex dynamics of a new propulsion system according to Kuperman. “A complex system can be simplified with more experts engaged in implementing and regulating a new technology. This has been a success yielded from Coast Guard and Maid of the Mist coordination and consultation, including Coast Guard Headquarters and the Marine Safety Center and working together to identify any gaps in existing regulations.”
Partnering with New York State proved extremely helpful to Maid of the Mist. When construction of the new vessels was announced in 2019, then lieutenant governor and now Governor Kathy Hochul noted that having the natural wonder of Niagara Falls means the state has a special responsibility as its steward to protect the falls for future generations. “This new fleet of all-electric vessels will protect the health of our waterways and environment and is another example of New York State building back better, smarter and greener.”
Planning for something new and innovative truly required a team mentality. For Maid of the Mist, the key part of the planning was carefully selecting vendors who would not only deliver a one-of-a-kind product, but fully support that product after delivery. Chris McKay, Maid of the Mist Marine operations manager, and his team were able to troubleshoot and respond to the new maintenance tasks of the battery powered technology. “I was given some advice once for developing a team. ‘See one, do one, teach one,’” he said. “In our inaugural 2021 season we saw and did a lot. Our first 12 months focused on calibrating the new technology to our environment and our operation. I have a background in marine electrical engineering and working this process alongside the designers and integrators I gained great insight into what we have and how it functions. As we move forward my core team focuses on the ‘teach one’ step. We take what we’ve learned, we simplify it, we demystify it, and pass those lessons on wherever we can.”
“It can’t be overstated how difficult it was to get the boats assembled down in the gorge,” Glynn said. The president of the naval architecture company, Micah Tucker, was instrumental in helping Maid of the Mist to navigate several hurdles as the project evolved.
Tucker said there were multiple challenges that impacted their scope of work with regards to battery propulsion versus a traditional power train for a vessel the size of Maid of the Mist. “At the time we started construction, the Coast Guard did not have a firm set of regulations for large scale lithium-ion battery installations. We worked with them to apply their guidelines for lithium-ion batteries, and we went above and beyond with some safety features. We also spent a significant amount of time working with the Coast Guard to develop an agreeable solution that met existing regulatory requirements while allowing for ABB’s new technology to bring an equivalent level of safety to the project utilizing automation and control software in addition to traditional hardware like fuses and circuit breakers.”
As James V. Glynn and Nikola Tesla navigate the waters of the Lower Niagara River helping guests check off a top of their bucket list item, Glynn knows the investment in cutting-edge technology has been worth it. “Our family has renewed the fleet several times since taking over Maid of the Mist in the 1970s. With our new e-boats we would like to think that we are continuing the tradition of innovation to be carried forward by the next generations.”