ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS – Seastreak was riding high in recent years, its fleet of ferries filled to capacity as it shuttled business people and day trippers between the Jersey Shore and Manhattan in less than an hour.
Its future was so bright that the company commissioned two $18 million catamarans certified to carry 600 passengers each, making them the largest high-speed ferries of their class in the country.
“It has been a great success story until this past, you know, March of 2020,” said James Barker, Seastreak’s director of business development and marketing.
Seastreak’s newest delivery, the three-deck Courageous, arrived in December, but it is docked at the Atlantic Highlands Marina, waiting for the latest wave of the COVID-19 pandemic to ebb so that workers can return to the office.
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It is the latest chapter in what has been a tumultuous two years for a company whose core business was upended by the virus’ impact on daily commuting.
The Shore has lots at stake in the outcome. The housing market has jumped during the pandemic, thanks in large part to New Yorkers who at once have been seeking more space, while maintaining easy access to the city.
Clients who have moved here recently and work in New York City remain unclear whether they will return to offices, even part-time, said Kelly Fernandes, a real estate agent with Heritage House Sotheby’s International Realty in Rumson.
Either way, “Seastreak, to me, is still very essential,” she said.
Everyone had a row — or two — to themselves on a recent Friday in January as one of Seastreak’s smaller ferries made the 40-minute journey from Highlands.
Passengers typed on their computers, read books or stared out the windows as the boat motored along the Staten Island coastline, under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, past the Statue of Liberty, to lower Manhattan, where it let passengers off before making another 15-minute ride up the East River to 35th Street.
The trip for people 13 and older costs $28 one way, $47 roundrip, $217 for a book of 10 trips and $695 for a book of 40 trips.
It is more expensive than the train or driving, but the company bills its service as “the most civilized way to get there,” and it is hard to argue. The ferry doesn’t stop every five minutes like NJ Transit or get stuck in a bottleneck of honking cars at the Holland Tunnel.
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Not that the journey is trouble-free. In June, one of Seastreak’s vessels lost power and steering due to a mechanical problem and drifted to the Brooklyn side of the East River before coming to rest at the shore. No one was injured, the company said.
But Ian Evans has been commuting just about every day to his trading job since moving to Middletown from Jersey City six months ago. Although he can work from home, he said, he prefers to work in person, which makes it easier to get answers in a fast-paced environment.
“I love the ferry, personally, especially with two kids,” Evans, 34, said. “It’s my quiet time to read.”
Seastreak operates routes between New Jersey and Manhattan year-round, and it makes seasonal trips between New Jersey and New York and Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, Massachusetts.
The company is owned by two families, the Barkers and the Tregurthas, who acquired Seastreak in 2007 after its previous owner, Bermuda-based Sea Containers Ltd., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Since taking over, ridership had grown year over year, sometimes by as much as 20%, convincing executives that the company needed more capacity, James Barker said. (Barker’s father, Jim, is Seastreak’s president).
They commissioned the Commodore, which was delivered in 2018, and the Courageous, named in honor of health care workers and the crew who continued to work during the pandemic, which was delivered in December.
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The Courageous, at 157 feet long, is slightly larger than the Commodore. But both travel at about 35 knots and can carry about 100 more passengers than other boats in the fleet, said Jack Bevins, vice president of operations.
The Courageous, however, was in service only briefly before the omicron variant swept through New York and New Jersey, a reminder that Seastreak’s fortunes are tied to COVID.
‘We were just cost cutting everywhere’
When the pandemic first hit the region in March and April 2020, Seastreak’s ridership plummeted by 90%. It cut its staff of more than 200 to 38. And it put on hold projects such as a new mobile app, Barker said.
Looming over the company: What to do with the new catamaran that it had ordered.
“We were just cost cutting everywhere because we just didn’t know what was going to happen, like everyone else,” Barker said. “So all the projects we paused, except for this. We figured it would be advantageous to have a finished boat at the end of COVID, and we would evaluate demand when the time comes, rather than have something that is half-done sitting in the shipyard.”
Predicting the future is tough. Seastreak finds itself caught between two pandemic-era trends: More New Yorkers have moved to the Jersey Shore, which could lead to more passengers. But fewer workers are going into the office five days a week, which could lead to fewer passengers.
Still, a growing consensus is emerging that employers and workers are settling on a hybrid model, spending two or three days a week in the office and the rest at home.
It was a model that appeared to be underway last fall, when Seastreak saw ridership rebound, regaining about 60% of its passengers, Barker said, until the omicron variant sent white-collar workers retreating to their home offices once again.
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For now, Seastreak is relying on customers such as Pierre Bonan, a commercial real estate adviser who moved from New York to Rumson in the past year in search of what he said was a better lifestyle.
He has been commuting to his office in the city on average three days a week.
“I don’t think it’s going to be the same as before, I think it’s just going to be different,” Bonan, 47, said as the ferry sped to Manhattan. “Everybody’s going to have a different balance that works well for them. But I think some people definitely will go back to the office.”
As the Courageous idled in Atlantic Highlands, Seastreak officials said the pandemic forced them to pivot to other ideas. They hired a marine biologist to help guide whale-watching tours. They launched sunset cruises. And they opened The Sandbox at Seastreak Beach, a beach bar in Highlands.
It’s not enough, however, to offset losses from their core business — the New Jersey to New York City ferry service.
At this point, the outlook runs the gamut. New Monmouth County residents could return to Manhattan offices in droves. Or another variant could emerge.
“I don’t want to put anything out there,” Barker said when asked for his prediction. “But everything that we’ve been reading so far about omicron, it looks like it peaks and then it drops off. So, we’re hopeful that this maybe could be the end, finally, and maybe we’ll have somewhat of a normal life and commuting cadence going forward. But we’ll see.”
Michael L. Diamond is a business reporter who has been writing about the New Jersey economy and health care industry for more than 20 years. He can be reached at [email protected]
Source: Asbury Park