MYSTIC — The 1908 Sabino wooden steamboat that once chugged along the Mystic River powered by a coal-fired furnace will soon be propelled by diesel electric generators, despite Mystic Seaport Museum efforts to continue using historic machinery to operate the vessel.
Since 1974, the museum has offered cruises on the vessel, which has been the only fully operational coal-fired steamboat in New England. The Sabino was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1992 and the museum completed a two-year restoration of the vessel in 2017.
About three years ago, the steam boiler needed to be replaced and the museum installed one that was appropriate for the time period of the vessel, said Christopher Gasiorek, vice president for watercraft preservation and programs at the museum.
The boiler wasn’t a problem but finding qualified personnel who could operate it according to Coast Guard regulations was, said Gasiorek.
“Unfortunately, there’s really no path for steam engineers. To get a license to operate a passenger-carrying steam vessel, you have to have worked a certain number of years at certain different levels on other operating steamboats. And when there are none – there are very, very few – there really is no path for someone to become the chief engineer that’s needed to operate the vessel,” he told CT Examiner.
The lack of qualified steamboat personnel made operating the vessel impossible, he said, which led the museum to a decision to move toward electric propulsion while maintaining the steam plant in place as a historic landmark.
“If we wanted to continue to operate the vessel, which is a very important visitor experience on the Mystic River, we really had no choice but to look at alternative propulsion,” Gasoriek said. “The steam engine will still be able to run. We just won’t be able to carry passengers with it running as per U.S. Coast Guard regulations.”
Gasoriek said a wholly battery powered electric propulsion system was the first concept the museum explored.
“But we ran into too many hurdles with the US Coast Guard as far as battery protection and stowage and fire protection for the size of the vessel. It was just not feasible to do it that way. So we changed the plan and we’re putting in two small diesel generators,” he said.
If the technology changes, the vessel could be fitted for battery power, he said.
“The Coast Guard’s rules for how to make a safe place for lithium batteries – and any regulation is always a bit behind technology – those regulations for electric propulsion batteries on inspected vessels were put together when the battery chemistry was for lithium batteries, but there have been chemistry changes in batteries that have made it less of an issue,” he said.
He said the regulations for how batteries are stowed on an inspected vessel were written “really for a New York City harbor ferry,” or a new construction vessel where a dedicated space could be built for battery storage with explicit ventilation, fire protection, access and boundaries.
“On a 50-foot historic wooden vessel, you can’t rebuild a new space into an old ship,” he said. “It was impossible without basically building a new vessel to meet those requirements. We spent about a year going through every possible novel engineering approach we could and just could not make it through the regulations and the inspection process.”
The two new small “yacht-power” generators are “ultra-quiet,” he said. The vessel can be operated on one generator for slow tours around the museum riverfront and with two generators for faster trips down the river.
The museum’s “electrification propulsion” budget for the Sabino was about $300,000, including installation of the wiring, Gasoriek said.
The Sabino is out of the water because, as installation of the electric propulsion was beginning, woodwork was found in the hull that needed to be replaced.
“So we’re doing that in addition to installing the electric propulsion system and hope to have it running on the river this spring,” he said.
As far as pollution from the diesel generators, Gasoriek said they produce a “teeny, tiny exhaust.”
“You won’t even see it and it’ll actually probably be quieter than the steam engine,” he said.
Gasoriek said it was important to consider the environmental aspect of changing to modern technology.
“We’d like to run it authentically and I think it was important that people saw what a steam engine does – it makes smoke and burns coal — and we are happy that we aren’t doing that anymore,” he said. “I think it’s important for people to imagine if that’s what would come out from one small excursion vessel, imagine our environment 100 years ago when there were thousands of these vessels running.”
He said that one day of the coal operations on the Sabino equaled the same amount of Co2 emissions as driving an average car from Mystic to Anchorage, Alaska and back.
“We are very happy to not be doing that, just from an environmental standpoint,” he said.
He said visitors riding on the Sabino can still see the steam boiler because it’s “kind of front and center” in the vessel.
“But from a preserving history [standpoint] – showing folks what just a little picture of what it may have been like in an environment where so many of those were running — we’re missing out on telling a little bit [of detail], but we’ll still be able to tell that story.”