Today, Auckland is served by a fleet of about 30 noisy, ageing diesel ferries that are prone to breakdown.
In the here and now, that makes for a dreary reality.
LATEST: Auckland’s electric ferries: ABB wins supercharger contract, boatmaker updates on delivery
Councillors Chris Darby and Richard Hills recently met ferry operator Fullers about staffing issues, ferry reliability and - proving AT is not always an award-winning transport operator - poor coordination with commuter buses.
And Transport Minister Michael Wood continues his drawn-out bid to bring the costly Waiheke run back into the subsidised public system.
But a sparkly new future beckons. After years of talk and budget delays, electric ferries have now been commissioned and construction is underway on the first of seven hybrid and electric boats.
There have been major developments over the past couple of months. After an initial $20 million of toe-in-the-water support, public funding for Auckland's transition to electric and hybrid ferries has now been boosted to more than $150m.
And that could be expanded further if hydrogen-powered vessels become part of the mix. On that score, Fullers chief executive Mike Horne has recently returned from his second fact-finding mission to the US. More on the "H" revolution below.
Specifics got a bit lost in the major overhaul of Auckland ferries announced on July 15, and other details have emerged since, so it's worth a quick recap on the new lay of the land, or at least the harbour. Here are the key points.
• Auckland Transport (AT) is providing $80m to fund five hybrid ferries (electric ferries with diesel generators for backup).
• Central government is providing $27m to fund two fully-electric ferries.
• In what is being billed as a pragmatic move, given the time it will take to move to electric and hybrid ferries, the council-controlled AT is also providing $15m to upgrade four Fullers ferries to more efficient diesel engines. The boats in question are Wanderer, D5, Starflyte and Tiri Kat.
• Fullers will do the refit, but AT is funding the work and has already taken ownership of the four diesels in line for an upgrade over the next 18 months. The first work starts in about a month.
• AT has also earmarked $30m for superchargers on wharves for five-minute battery top-ups during the day as customers disembark and alight.
• The five hybrid ferries and two fully-electric vessels will all be owned by AT. That's a change from the current regime, where Fullers owns all the ferries it operates. The hybrid ferry that Fullers announced earlier - funded by private equity - will be taken on by AT and become one of the five AT-funded hybrids.
• Fullers will have a five-year operating contract for the AT-owned electric and hybrid ferries. Earlier this year, Energy Minister Megan Woods had said it was up in the air whether Fullers or AT would manage the new boats.
• The first of the new boats - a 300-person hybrid - will serve the Devonport-to-CBD sailing, the city's busiest route, from late 2023 or early 2024. The second hybrid is also earmarked for the Devonport run.
• The remaining three hybrids and the two fully-electric ferries have been designated for the Hobsonville Point and Half Moon Bay runs from late 2024.
• Fullers boss Horne says the Waiheke sailing doesn't suit an electric ferry because of the distance and lack of grunt on the island's grid, but sees hydrogen as an increasingly viable mid-term option (more below).
Fullers is project-managing the transition, while AT is setting the procurement rules for the remaining builds.
The Wellington Electric Boat Building Co, which earlier this year launched the Southern Hemisphere's first electric ferry in Wellington, is keen to get a look in, it chief executive Fraser Foote told the Herald.
An AT spokesman responded, "We're currently designing a procurement plan for the subsequent four vessels which will ensure a competitive process."
The first of the new boats was originally scheduled for next year, but is now likely to be hitting the water in early 2024 amid pandemic supply chain issues and labour challenges (keep reading).
Wharf contract won't be awarded til end of 2023
Then there is the need to install superchargers at wharves - which seems to be emerging as a potential handbrake on the project (although the hybrids will still be able to run on diesel, as a stop-gap, if the infrastructure is not ready in time).
In its 10-year Regional Transport Plan for 2021-31, Auckland Transport allocates $30m for infrastructure to support the decarbonisation of the city's fleet.
In November last year, AT issued a request for information through the government's tender system for supply and installation of 2 to 3 megawatt rapid chargers to support the operation of electric ferries.
Asked for an update on the tender process this month, an AT spokesman said, "We're aiming to award a design services contract for the charging and civil infrastructure works by the end of this year, with a main construction contract likely to be awarded by the end of next year."
At this point, it's not clear if it will cost more or less than the $30m floated in the 10-year plan.
"Our landside works are still being scoped out and we're still refining the staging of how we'll deliver this infrastructure," the AT spokesperson said. "At this stage we do not have a cost estimate available for these works.
"There are two parts to this work: putting in place the necessary charging equipment and making changes to the wharves to ensure they are able to fit these ferries."
Given that the contract for the electrification of Auckland's wharves might not be awarded until the end of 2023, it might be a push to get any fully electric ferries on the water in 2024.
Horne notes, however, that the five hybrids can always run on their diesel generators. That won't cut the decibels or save the planet, but they will be able to provide passenger service from the get-go.
The Fullers boss adds that only the piers on the city side need to be electrified. Five-minute charges on the CBD wharves, as passengers get on and off, will keep a ferry topped up through the day.
Other potential holdups include the perennial challenge of dealing with new technology - currently compounded by pandemic disruption and the labour squeeze.
There are still a lot of supply chain issues, says Michael Eaglen, chief executive of EV Maritime - a spin-off from well-established East Tamaki boatbuilder McMullen & Wing - that is building the hybrid ferries.
"Shipments which are scheduled to arrive just get bumped off ships in overseas ports and wind up arriving weeks late," he says.
"It's a pretty challenging time to build things to a deadline using imported materials. We're going okay in our project, but have had our share of scares."
The skill shortage is another headache.
Christchurch-based HamiltonJet is making the propulsion systems for both the hybrid ferries - the first of which is being built by Whanganui boatbuilder Q-West - and the two fully-electric ferries being made by EV Maritime in Auckland.
Managing director Ben Reed tells the Herald it's taken his firm a full year to gear up to the point where it can double its output.
HamiltonJet now employs about 500 people worldwide, including 250 operational staff in Christchurch.
"It's not just jetboats on the Waimak anymore," Reed says, referring to the boats pioneered by Sir William Hamilton in the 1950s on the Waimakariri River that became an iconic tourism image.
While HamiltonJet's work on next-generation ferries is making waves here, it's just part of Reed's brimming plate.
"We've got similar projects for customers in the US, Sweden and Australia," he says.
"A real movement has started around the world to electrify commercial marine - municipal transport, police boats and marine rescue," he says.
Reed says his firm is also doing a lot of military and patrol vessel work for clients around the world.
Reed says while his first preference is to hire from within New Zealand, labour constraints forced him to look offshore.
He was able to bring in 15 staff from the Philippines under a fast-track visa programme, but says that has now ended. He would get in as many as 50 more staff if he could, so HamiltonJet could run day, afternoon and night shifts. He says skilled Indian and Filipino staff would earn equal pay, with the same benefits as locals, including overtime, if borders were opened further and he could get them in.
There is the Accredited Employer Work Visa, which lets an employer hire migrants on a visa for up to three years, but Reed says: "Accreditation is slow and there's a very high burden involved in proving you can't find suitable New Zealanders first."
Regardless of the pressures, Reed says his firm will deliver its parts for the Auckland ferry contracts on time. The fully-electric EV Maritime contract is the simpler one, with HamiltonJet just providing the propulsion system. For the hybrids being built by Q-West, HamiltonJet is also providing the batteries and the drive train.
Fullers Horne says, "All of this is business-as-usual boat building stuff. "We initially had problems getting enough aluminum, for example."
Coming next: The hydrogen revolution
The ink was barely dry on the electric and hybrid ferry deal struck with the Government and AT, when Horne led a team of Fullers staff to the US on a fact-finding mission - in part to visit a ferry operator in San Francisco that is running under a similar model to the new Fullers/AT setup, and partly to assess how the world's first hydrogen-powered ferry is faring in Seattle.
The mid-August jaunt was a follow up to a trip in 2019, when Horne and co. looked at early development of the San Francisco hydrogen ferry before the pandemic intervened.
"All American Marine have finished the vessel and it's now ready for an operator," Horne says.
"We jumped on the boat and had a really good look around. And it's clearly still a prototype vessel, it's not yet an operational vessel - though it will be - but the learnings that my technical team took out of that ... were just amazing. The All American guys were very upfront about what worked and what didn't work."
Issues with the boat included its speed of 13 knots when it was designed for 20 knots, and refuelling time.
"It's an eight-hour job once a day to refuel them, which is not very efficient and fraught with issues. That timeframe needs to be one hour - which is achievable," the Fullers boss says.
Horne's general take is that hydrogen technology is coming together for the boat itself, so now his attention is on New Zealand's hydrogen network.
"That's the biggest challenge at the moment," he says. Auckland currently has one hydrogen refueller, built by Ports of Auckland with Japan's Obayashi, but with hydrogen trucks in mind rather than boats.
"But the hydrogen network will be happening across New Zealand over the next three years," Horne says, referring to efforts by energy company Hiringa and trucking business HW Richardson that are now underway - if in the very early stages - to dot the country with hydrogen refuellers, and the 1.5 megawatt green hydrogen production plant that Halcyon Power opened last December at the Mōkai geothermal power station near Taupo. Halcyon Power is a joint venture between Obayashi and Tūaropaki Trust, which majority owns the Mōkai station.
Horne has also been talking to Fabrum, the Christchurch firm that has pioneered new techniques for storing and transporting hydrogen without any heat gain (crucial given that it has to be kept at a temperature only fractionally above zero degrees Kelvin, or minus 273C).
"It's that extra level of technology and complication that includes chilling hydrogen down to ridiculously low temperatures, and then transferring it, which is quite an involved process - whether you use cartridge transfers or liquid-into-gas."
And another issue is that while the Megawatt Charging System has emerged in the world of EV heavy trucking - and is specified in AT's tender for electrifying wharves for the new ferries - an equivalent widely-accepted standard has yet to emerge in the business of hydrogen refuelling networks.
"But things are developing really quickly," Horne says. If everything comes together, he could see the first hydrogen-powered ferries on the water in just three to four years.
He says the hydrogen ferries won't replace the EVs. He sees a hydrogen-powered ferry suiting the Waiheke run that's too far to be practical with an electric ferry.
Just as hydrogen suits larger trucks on inter-city runs, while EVs take hold in the smaller, short-run local delivery, hydrogen will suit larger ferries on longer routes, he says.