FEATURE | Supatra Boats: a long history and a strong future

(Photo courtesy of Alan Haig-Brown)

Many of the world’s great cities are built on rivers. Most have developed fleets of cross-river ferries, but few have developed a commuter fleet that takes people up and down river to work, sightsee, and shop. Today’s Bangkok has a state-of-the-art transportation network of buses, sky train, subway, and affordable taxis; and yet, every day, thousands of passengers hop onto a fleet of commuter ferries that serves the 27 kilometres of river through the city’s core. One route reaches farther up to Pak Kred for a total of 30 kilometres.

With a population of over ten million spread over both sides, the Chao Phraya River, both for the many cross-river ferries and the commuter Express Boats, remains a key resource in the transportation infrastructure of a large, busy city. The commuter ferries share the river with tugs and barges working upriver with the flood and downriver with the ebb tide; multiple special ferries servicing hotels and condos; high-speed “long-tail” boats showing tourists the river and its side canals; and all with miscellaneous patrol and cargo vessels passing up and down through numerous bridges. The ferries stop at 14 piers along their route often alternating from one side to the other of the river, to service the complex traffic on the meandering Chao Phraya.

Relative to the low-wake commuter ferries that we see running between two or three terminals in cities like Amsterdam or Vancouver, this service is more like a multi-stop, city bus route. Unlike the buses on crowded streets, the skillful ferry operators can track through the massed traffic to reach the landings in good time.

A large, diverse, and continuously growing fleet

Khun Supapan Pichaironarongsongkram (Photo courtesy of Alan Haig-Brown)

Owner Khun Supapan Pichaironarongsongkram had built the fleet on the earlier work of her grandmother and mother who operated a series of cross river ferries. Khun Supapan took over the ferry system from the municipality of Bangkok, which had struggled to operate the system. She built it into a fleet of 60 all-wooden, uniquely suited and elegant vessels. These heavily-built but graceful 29- by 5.2-metre, wooden single-engine boats are popular with commuters and tourists alike. Today, there are 30 of the single-engine 29-metre boats and 12 of the twin-engined, 29-metred boats. Power on most of the vessels is one or two 260kW diesels giving speeds of about 16 knots.

For fifty years, these boats have been the backbone of the Chao Phraya Express Boat fleet. Each day, the boats repeat regular landings at 32 piers, with the stern brought tight and held in place with the engine thrust on a spring line, for passengers to disembark and load. It makes for a lot of wear and tear on a wooden boat. The Express Boats moved 35,000-passengers daily pre-pandemic but dropped to 3,000 during the pandemic. The numbers are back up to about 18,000 per day as of February 2023. However, quality wood and skilled tradespeople continue to make maintenance, or even replacement, a challenge.

Catamaran express boat (Photo courtesy of Alan Haig-Brown)

For decades, Chao Phraya Express Boat Chairperson Khun Supapan had been weighing the alternatives from plywood to FRP, steel, and aluminum. Meantime, Australian designers were making huge strides in the design of aluminium catamarans. After extensive consultation with naval architects at Australia’s Schwetz Design, a catamaran commuter ferry design was developed. A huge departure from the existing single-hull, wooden boats, three of these new aluminium vessels were built at the company’s own shipyard in Ayutthaya and are operated by a sister company, the Chao Phraya Tourist Boat Company.

They proved to be efficient people carriers and, with slight modifications, including the addition of air conditioning, four more were built at the ASIMAR Shipyard near the mouth of the Chao Phraya. These seven boats are all, as of early 2023, in operation on the river. The first three boats are dedicated to tourist tours of the sights and temples along the river.

The four later boats, each measuring 23.9 by seven metres, operate on the regular ferry route. They serve as an Express Class boat, so they stop at only eleven of the 32 piers that the traditional Express Boats serve. They provide air-conditioned comfort for up to 140 passengers on the enclosed main deck or 60 seats for sightseeing elegance on the open top deck. A THB30 (US$0.88) fare contrasts with the THB16 (US$0.47) fare on the traditional boats. The three tourist boats offer a convenient “hop on, hop off” service for visitors.

Riva Express 4 (Photo courtesy of Alan Haig-Brown)

The four Riva Express boats, along with the original catamarans, have proven to be successful with tourists and are available for special charters. However, the traditional mono-hull boats, with their proven efficiencies, continue to attract riders. The Covid-19 pandemic reduced daily ridership, but as of January 2023, it was showing rapid and steady increase. In fact, the Chao Phraya Express estimates that it still gets 90 per cent of all commuter river traffic on express boats. These trends do not go unnoticed by the folks at Supatra Boat, the parent firm of the Express Boat Company. Recently, the Managing Director, Lieutenant Commander Charoenporn Charoenthum, showed a concept drawing for a new series of Express Boats. It is felt by those in charge at Supatra Boat that it is time for more of the well proven, traditional, mono-hull design.

Future prospects for proven vessels

(Photo courtesy of Alan Haig-Brown)

The long, slim, and agile wooden Express Boats have proven themselves over a half century on the tricky and turbulent waters of the Chao Phraya. They are adept at manoeuvring between the heavy and diverse river traffic. They can discharge and load passengers quickly from the aft deck. Wood is no longer available in any practical quantities and skilled shipwrights are in decline. The aluminium, while workable for the twin engine catamaran hulls, will be replaced with steel for the more rugged dockings procedure of the new monohulls. At the same time, the lightweight advantages of aluminium have been demonstrated by the catamarans, so it will be used for the superstructure on the proposed boats.

In an online article explaining the history of Thailand’s canals, local newspaper Siam Rath reports that 32 per cent of the land in New York and 23 per cent of the area of Tokyo are given over to roads. In contrast, only eight per cent of the area of Bangkok is provided for roads. With those kinds of numbers, there is no doubt that the waterways will play an important part in the future of Bangkok’s transportation.

With their history, there seems little doubt that the Chao Phraya Express Boats will have a vital role to play in the future of maritime transportation in Bangkok.

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Alan Haig-Brown

Alan Roderick Haig-Brown is a Canadian novelist and non-fiction writer. He specialises in commercial marine and commercial fishing writing and photography. He is a regular contributor to a number of marine publications.