Parting Glances: the slow boat to Penang

30 12 2020

There is something magical about the Penang ferry. Much like stepping onto one of the passenger ferries crossing Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, the magic is perhaps how time seems to stand absolutely still from the moment one drives onto a ferry to or from Penang for the twenty minutes or so that the journey takes.

A ferry making the crossing to Penang island at sunrise.

Sadly, the ferries — at least how I knew them — are being retired at the end of December. I would have made a long drive up to Penang just to have a last ride on one if not for the current restrictions on travel. Not having been able to do that, I am thankful that I did take a few photographs the last time I found myself on a Penang ferry in June 2016, some of which I will be including in this post.

A ferry approaching George Town.

A ferry service between Penang and the mainland has apparently been around since 1893/94. That was introduced at a time when the motorcar had not been seen in this part of the world. The first vehicle ferries were only introduced on 1 May 1925. Two lighters, onto which vehicles could be loaded onto were initially used, each pulled by a steam powered boat. A third craft, the Seberang — the first to be purposed built for the service and which had been on order with the Singapore Harbour Board’s (SHB) dockyard at Keppel — was added at the end of the same year. The Seberang, which had a length of 116′ and a beam of 22′, had a capacity of up to five vehicles and up to some 300 passengers.

Two ferries going in opposite directions.

The phenomenal growth in motorcar traffic across the channel, which doubled in the first year of operation, saw to orders for two larger vessels placed wth the SHB in 1928. The two, the SS Kulim and SS Tanjong, with a length of 128′ and a beam of 31′ had a capacity of 16 cars and 360 passengers.

The Penang Bridge, which was completed in the 1980s. The bridge is one of two that takes the bulk of the road traffic making the crossing between Penang and the mainland.

With two bridges linking the mainland to Penang island, taking up the bulk of vehicular traffic, it would only have been a matter of time that the vehicle carrying ferry service would eventually outlive its purpose. With the condition of the current fleet of vehicular ferries, which were built from 1975 to 2002 deteriorating, the vehicle ferry service will be withdrawn just a few years short of 100th year of operation. What will replace the aging roll-on/roll-off ferries will be faster and perhaps cheaper to operate passenger only ferries that lack the charm and grace of the old slow boats to Penang.

The vehicle deck.
The passenger deck.

More photographs taken in 2016:


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