Cable Ferry: Conquering Currents

Whether man-powered or electric-powered, cable ferries serve an important role in getting passengers from point A to point B – and in the right location, they also provide an opportunity to check out the local history.

By Any Other Name

The cable ferry can go by several other names, including the chain ferry, swing ferry, floating bridge, or punt. Regardless of the name, these vessels are all guided across rivers or other bodies of water by cables connected to both shores. Historically the cables were rope or steel, but they transitioned to wire cable beginning in the 19th century.

These ferries can carry vehicles in addition to walk-on passengers. They cannot be steered because they are bound to the cables for their journey and can’t deviate from the established path. While there are some exceptions, cable ferries make most sense in areas where there are not many other water vessels to get caught in the cables. They are especially attractive as a safer option in rivers where the currents are too strong for a non-cabled ferry to cross safely.

Three Types of Cable Ferries

There are three types of cable ferries, each of which are powered differently:

  • Reaction Ferry: This cable ferry uses the power of the water to move across the current. These ferries are considered very environmentally friendly.
  • Powered Ferry: This version of the cable ferry uses an engine or electric motors to move across the water. These ferries use powered cogs on the vessel to pull it along the cables. The cables are built with slack so that they can remain under the water, allowing other vessels to pass-by, reducing the risk of cables snapping or interference from other boats.
  • Hand-operated Ferry: As the name implies, this cable ferry is powered by muscle alone. Given the advancements in electricity, the hand-operated ferry is now the least common of the three. There are, however, a number of hand-operated ferries that still draw significant traffic, including the Stratford-upon-Avon cable ferry and the Saugatuck cable ferry – and one man-powered ferry left in Germany.

Technology continues to advance, even for vessels as old as the cable ferry. The newest innovations being researched for the cable ferry include use of lithium ion batteries to power the boats.

History of the Cable Ferry

Individuals have needed to cross bodies of water since before recorded history, and some version of the cable ferry likely existed to address this need. Recorded examples of this type of transportation date back to the 13th century, including the Hampton Ferry in England. Other notable, historical cable ferries include:

  • Kennebecasis River: In the early 1900s, Canadian engineer William Pitt installed a cable ferry on this river, paving the way for additional cable ferries along the Saint John River system.
  • Sacramento Delta: Cable ferries rose to prominence on the Columbia River, though most are no longer workable.
  • New South Wales: Cable ferries once served as the primary means of transportation for automobiles.
  • Tai O on Lantau Island: The Tai O Ferry in Hong Kong served as the main crossing over the Tai O River.
  • Connecticut River: Cable ferries operated on this river as early as 1640.

Beware of Danger

Cable ferries don’t come without their own hazards. Given their dependence on cables, they are susceptible to accidents. Cables could snap or other vessels could inadvertently wander into the path of the cable ferry, leaving passengers stranded or injured. An example of such an incident can be seen here.

While there are some small risks of danger, cable ferries represent an important and impressive part of water-travel history. Consider taking a ride if you ever have the opportunity to board a cable ferry.