The new passenger ferry to Ocracoke is ready, but it will bear another island’s name

People will be able to ride the Ocracoke Express starting Monday — the passenger-only ferry between Hatteras and Ocracoke — but the boat will bear the name of another resort island.

The state has arranged to lease the M/V Martha’s Vineyard Express to make three round-trip runs a day between Hatteras and Silver Lake in Ocracoke village. The service begins Monday, May 20, and will run through Labor Day.

The Martha’s Vineyard Express will stand in for the Ocracoke Express, a $4.15 million catamaran ferry being built by US Workboats in Hubert, near Swansboro. The Ocracoke Express was supposed to be finished in April 2018, but delays and construction problems pushed that date back, first to last fall and then this spring.

When it became clear this winter that the boat wouldn’t be ready for this summer season either, NCDOT began looking for a substitute to lease. It found the Martha’s Vineyard Express, which is owned by New Jersey-based ferry company Seastreak Marine.

Rides on the passenger ferry will be free for the first two days. Then the state will begin charging passengers $1 each way, with no charge for bicycles. The NCDOT’s Ferry Division had planned to charge up to $15 for a round-trip ticket, and it’s not clear how long the initial $1 fee will remain in place. The trip takes 70 minutes.

“It will depend on ridership,” NCDOT spokesman Jamie Kritzer wrote in an email.

The ferries for vehicles between the two islands are free, but the wait to get on can be considerable during the summer months. The introduction of a passenger-only ferry was meant to relieve some of that demand and give visitors an alternative.

NCDOT will spend about $1 million to rent the Martha’s Vineyard Express. It already had expected to spend $9.1 million on the passenger ferry project, including new parking in Hatteras and a dock and passenger shelter on Ocracoke.

The Martha’s Vineyard Express was one of several private ferries that operate in the summer between the mainland and the island in Massachusetts. It ran between New Bedford, the Vineyard and Nantucket in the summers and between New Jersey and Manhattan in the winter, Kritzer said. The vessel became available this summer when Seastreak replaced it this season, he said.

This week, the boat completed test runs in Pamlico Sound between Hatteras and Ocracoke, the final hurdle to putting it in service on the Outer Banks.

“We are thrilled to be able to provide this service between Hatteras and Ocracoke villages,” Harold Thomas, the state’s Ferry Division director, said in a statement. “It will give summer travelers a quicker, wait-free, stress-free transportation option between the two islands, and provide a big boost to the local tourist economy.”

The ferry will leave Hatteras at 9 a.m., 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. and return from Ocracoke at 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. NCDOT encourages people to be at the docks 20 minutes before departure time. There are no reservations, though they may become available later in the season.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.