Mystic Seaport’s steamboat now also an electric vessel
Mystic ― Mystic Seaport Museum’s steam-powered excursion vessel Sabino has ferried more than 6,000 passengers up and down the Mystic River since it returned to service earlier this summer after completing a half million-dollar upgrade.
“The system so far has run excellent. It’s easy to run, fuel-efficient and quiet. It’s doing everything we want it to, and I see a long future for Sabino to continue to operate on the river,” said Chris Gasiorek, senior director of operations and watercraft.
The museum’s Henry B. duPont Shipyard began work last fall to add electric power and make structural repairs to the 115-year-old steamboat, which has been a familiar sight on the Mystic River for decades.
The shipyard added two small diesel-powered generators in soundproof containers to power a new electric propulsion system alongside the coal-powered steam engine, which will still be used occasionally, maintaining Sabino’s historical integrity.
Initial plans called for using batteries to supply electric power to the system, but the Sabino did not have enough room to house the batteries and comply with U.S. Coast Guard ventilation, space and safety requirements.
The current system was designed so it could be converted to battery power in the future.
Sabino was built in 1908 in East Boothbay, Maine, and was acquired by the museum in 1972. The 57-foot-long vessel was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1992.
Its steam engine, which is powered by a coal-fired boiler, was built by the J.H. Paine & Son Co. of Noank.
Gasiorek explained that prior to roads and motor vehicles, the Sabino and hundreds of similar vessels ferried passengers and cargo around areas like New York Harbor and the coast of Maine as part of what was called the “mosquito fleet.” Today, the Sabino is the only one left.
During the work, Gasiorek said the shipyard also repaired some damage to the keel that was discovered when the water tank for the original steam propulsion system was moved.
The initial estimate for the upgrade was approximately $300,000, but Gasiorek said cost increases due to supply chain issues and inflation drove the cost to around $500,000, with a large portion of the work funded by a museum donor.
Gasiorek said there were many reasons the upgrade to electric power was necessary including staffing and environmental issues.
“Because it is so hard to get licensed steam engineers, the electric allows us to continue to run the vessel,” he said.
He said the path to get the license to operate a steam engine is restrictive, requiring supervised experience on a steamship, and there are very few steam-powered ships left.
He estimated there are five commercial steam-powered container ships operating in the United States, and though the engines are different, the licensing requirements are the same.
“If you need three years serving under a chief engineer on a steamboat, and there are only five steamboats, there’s really no route to get those licenses,” he said.
The upgrade to electric power produced by two small diesel generators also made good environmental sense, and reduced Sabino’s carbon emissions by 98%.
“We used to burn two tons of coal a day for six trips on Sabino. We now burn six gallons of diesel in the same time period,” Gasiorek said.
He said the museum had heard numerous concerns about the smoke and soot generated by the coal-powered steam engine.
“It is certainly helping to be a cleaner run on the Mystic River and for our community, and that is very important as well,” he noted.
If you go:
The Sabino makes seven trips up and down the river from the museum to the Mystic drawbridge between 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily. At 3:30 each afternoon, the Sabino makes a longer trip which carries passengers down river and under the drawbridge to Noank and back. Based on ticket sales, an additional 5:30 p.m. trip may also be available.
Editor’s note: This version corrects the name of deck hand James Weitlauf
Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.