Last Saturday’s crash of the Andrew J. Barberi was only the latest in this ferryboat’s calamitous career. Indeed, when it was launched in August 1981, the boat’s engines and steering failed; it went adrift and ran aground near Governor’s Island. In 1995, the boat experienced a similar engine failure causing it to drift yet again. Other sticky moments, of varying severity, plagued the Barberi during its three decades of operation; in 2003, it was involved in one of the worst disasters in the history of Staten Island Ferry service. (Even though the Barberi’s most disastrous incident wasn’t due to a faulty boat but to a faulty captain.)

Some relatives of victims [of the 2003 accident] wanted the ferry renamed, but city officials refused, citing the civic contributions of the boat’s namesake, Andrew J. Barberi, who was considered the greatest high school football coach in Staten Island’s history.

Mr. Barberi, who died in 1979 at age 64, was a star football player for Curtis High School, where he played a few blocks from St. George terminal and at New York University. He returned to Curtis as the team’s coach, motivating players with a perennial cigar wedged between his teeth.

In the late 1970s, then New York City mayor Edward Koch announced that the city would buy three new, state of the art ferryboats to supplement the aging and overcrowded fleet of existing ferries. One of these boats would eventually be christened the Andrew J. Barberi; but, unlike its namesake, the boat was a disappointment…even before it came to New York. In fact, it was two and a half years late in being put into service after failing several sea trials in the Gulf of Mexico; a problem that seems to lie with the boat’s high-tech propulsion system.

The system, known as a Voith Schneider Propeller, is considered one of the most maneuverable in the maritime world. It resembles a circle of knives that hang straight down in the water. The blades rotate to create momentum and pivot individually to provide direction, essentially acting as their own rudder.

“They honored his name by putting it on a ferry, and now the name will go down in infamy because of the crashes,” said Anthony Bisignano, a lawyer who knew Mr. Barberi when he played on a rival school’s football team and who represented passengers suing the city after the 2003 crash.

However, with high-tech comes high cost and maintenance, something that the city isn’t very eager to shell out. Like other NYC ferryboats, the Barberi is inspected four times a year ( it passed its last inspection with flying colors) but the eccentric workings of the boat’s propulsion system cannot always be anticipated. It’s the complex nature of technology that, while adding dynamism to our lives, often imperils it.

NY Times

PHOTO: “The Staten Island ferry Andrew J. Barberi is pushed by tug boats to a dock in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal on Saturday, May 8, 2010, in the Staten Island borough of New York, after it crashed into a pier.” (AP Photo/Robert Mecea) via The Gothamist