Interview: Charles A. Donadio, Jr., President, Atlantic Wind Transfers

Entrepreneur and offshore wind pioneer Donadio sees big opportunities ahead for the U.S. market.

atlantic endeavor
Courtesy Atlantic Wind Transfers

Published Jan 31, 2021 8:08 PM by Tony Munoz

(Article originally published in Nov/Dec 2020 edition.)

“I’ve pretty much spent most of my life on the ocean. When I was twelve years old I found a surfboard in a garage of a house my family was renting and walked two blocks down the street and jumped into the ocean and never looked back. I went to Narragansett High School and then on to the University of Rhode Island where I graduated with a major in Political Science.

“In college I was always looking for ways to work to earn extra money. During the summer of 1994 I found myself selling tickets for a DJ cruise on a boat. After a few of these cruises I began marketing the evening formal cruises to the fraternities and sororities on campus. The following year I purchased the vessel, the Southland, a flat-bottom riverboat.

“After a major restoration I relaunched the Southland in July of 1995. The narrated sightseeing tours and evening cruises sailing around Point Judith Pond and the Galilee Harbor of Refuge were an instant hit, earning “Best Scenic Water Ride” in Rhode Island and an Excellence Award for Tourism Development. The business experience was invaluable, learning first-hand how to own and operate a business right out of college. That experience earned me the 1998 Rhode Island Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award and then the 1998 New England Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

“The Southland shared the state pier with the Block Island Ferry, so during the summer I would see the ferry boats departing the dock and leaving passengers behind because they were so busy. I began researching the ferry business and came across high-speed ferries that were becoming more popular in the late 1990s and realized that this type of service would cut travel time in half. In 1998 I founded Island High Speed Ferry and launched the first high-speed ferry in Rhode Island, operating from Point Judith/Galilee to Block Island.

Operating this new fast ferry service got me looking at other seasonal destinations that could benefit from the fast ferry model, and I ultimately settled on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, which saw ten times the number of summer visitors as Block Island.

“In 2003 I founded Rhode Island Fast Ferry with the 400-passenger Millennium and launched the first high-speed ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, operating from Quonset Point, Rhode Island to Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard and providing a two-to-three-hour drive-time savings each way for vacationers coming from New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. In 2012 I built a custom new catamaran fast ferry, Ava Pearl, to take over the Martha’s Vineyard run while putting the Millennium into various charters.

“I was then approached by a person involved in Cape Wind about supplying crew transfer services. At the time I didn’t know what they were actually looking for, so I began my research overseas to learn about this industry that didn’t exist in the U.S. I was instantly intrigued and began pursuing the Cape Wind project, which ultimately did not come to fruition after all the legal proceedings kept it from progressing.

“There was also a little-known project in Rhode Island owned by Deepwater Wind moving slowly through the regulatory process. I picked up the phone and called the CEO and introduced myself and said, ‘I want to build and operate the crew transfer vessel for the Block Island Wind Farm.’ He said they were several years out from looking for a vessel so check back in a year or two. I kept calling and eventually was asked if I could provide a used vessel that could be retrofitted to save on costs. I said I was taking all the lessons learned overseas with crew transfer vessels (CTVs} and applying them to a purpose-built new vessel, which would do the job reliably and safely. I ultimately presented a new Southboats-designed CTV that had a proven record in Europe and won their business.

“In April 2016, the Atlantic Pioneer was launched as the first Jones Act-compliant CTV in the U.S. It went right into service supporting the construction of the Block Island Wind Farm and working with Deepwater Wind, GE, Fred. Olsen Windcarrier and numerous subcontractors. The Atlantic Pioneer is now approaching its fifth year supporting O&M operations for GE and Ørsted, which purchased Deepwater Wind in 2018.”

Wow, that’s quite a story! We asked you to grace the cover of this edition because you’re a pioneer in the fledgling U.S. offshore wind industry. Do you think of yourself as a pioneer?

Yes, I do consider myself and my crew members to be pioneers. Being the first CTV company in the U.S. is extremely exciting. Atlantic Wind Transfers plans to be in the forefront in providing crew transfer services up and down the East Coast. When the U.S. offshore wind industry eventually begins to pick up steam and move forward, there will be all kinds of opportunities for small-business owners to support the development of the massive supply chain that will be needed.

The Block Island Wind Farm has been running for over four years now and is still the U.S.’s only offshore wind farm. What’s taking so long? Why haven’t there been others?

There are actually two offshore wind farms now. The first was Block Island and now we have the second – Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind (CVOW), located 26 miles off Virginia Beach in federal waters.

Tell us about your recently signed contract with Dominion Energy in Virginia for your second CTV, Atlantic Endeavor. Will it be similar to the Block Island vessel?

Atlantic Wind Transfers was selected through a competitive bid process to provide long-term O&M crew transfer services for Dominion Energy supporting the Siemens Gamesa turbines. The Atlantic Endeavor is an all-new CTV design called the Chartwell 24, developed by Andy Page of Chartwell Marine in the U.K. He was also the lead designer of Atlantic Pioneer when he worked for Southboats back in 2016. This will be the third Chartwell 24 entering the offshore wind market. The first two were built by Diverse Marine on the Isle of Wight for Seacat Services, one of the leading CTV operators in Europe. Ours was built by Blount Boats in Warren, Rhode Island, who also built Atlantic Pioneer. 

Has the coronavirus been a factor in the delay?

The pandemic, along with permitting delays, has had repercussions throughout the industry. The delay has pushed out the need for vessels to at least 2023 and possibly as far as 2025.

Do you see your home state, Rhode Island, as a future center of U.S. offshore wind?

Absolutely. Rhode Island is positioned right in the epicenter of the windiest lease areas off the Eastern Seaboard, and being home to the first offshore wind farm in the U.S. does have its advantages. Rhode Island is close to all the offshore wind sites for Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut, so there will be supply chain needs that will flow into all the neighboring states. Rhode Island just announced plans to procure another 600 MW of offshore wind and is expected to be issuing a Request for Proposals by the end of next year.

Do you have plans to build other wind farm vessels in addition to CTVs – WTIVs (wind turbine installation vessels), for example?

No, I don’t have any intention to move into the SOV or WITV sectors. Atlantic Wind Transfers will focus on CTVs. This is what we do best, and we’ll be looking to grow our footprint down the East Coast. 

What is the future of offshore wind in the U.S.? How big can it get? What other projects are on the drawing board?

There are currently only 42 MW of offshore wind installed here in the U.S. This includes the Block Island Wind Farm owned by Ørsted with five GE 6 MW turbines and Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind (CVOW) owned by Dominion Energy with two Siemens Gamesa 6 MW turbines. The offshore wind projects currently under contract versus future market potential is constantly in flux. Based on the latest data from the Business Network Offshore Wind, the U.S. has 9,121 MW of offshore wind currently under contract with future goals of upwards of 30 GW by 2035. 

The first large scale project, Vineyard Wind (800 MW), has been patiently waiting for BOEM to issue its Record of Decision, which should hopefully be released in January. There are several Ørsted projects off Rhode Island, New Jersey and Maryland that have also been delayed out to 2023-2024. Dominion Energy has been making headway on its larger 2.6 GW project off the coast of Virginia with full-scale construction beginning around 2024. The drawing board seems to be getting larger each year, but we really need to kick off a large-scale project to give this industry a boost.

Will subsidies be necessary to make offshore wind a reality in domestic waters? What role do politics and federal regulations play in its development?

There are subsidies currently in place that are helping to jumpstart the industry, but who knows how long they will last? Those incentives will be driven by politics and lobbying. The oil industry also has subsidies in place, so it will be interesting to see how the green energy sector develops versus fossil fuels in the years to come. With a lot of companies developing net zero carbon goals and vessels looking to go hybrid to lower their NOx emissions, the writing is on the wall and there will continue to be heavy pressure on the fossil fuel industry. 

Where would you like to see Atlantic Wind Transfers in five years? What is your vision for the company?

My crystal ball? In five years we’ll grow our CTV fleet five-fold while continuing to be on the forefront of technology and design advancements. Our company will continue to innovate and collaborate with our European counterparts as we grow the business. We’ll be based in multiple states up and down the East Coast and possibly the West Coast, providing a turnkey operating model that will benefit our clients in the years to come. 

How would you describe your management style and company culture?

I would say I’m a pretty good boss. Most of our full-time employees have been with the company for over 15 years and their longevity reflects our company culture. We’re a family-owned business that was built from the ground up. Our employees’ dedication has helped grow Rhode Island Fast Ferry and Atlantic Wind Transfers to where we are today. They’re especially excited to grow with the offshore wind business, knowing they’re leading the way in this once-in-a-lifetime new industry. Our employees have played an integral part in all of our company’s successes. 

Tony Munoz is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Maritime Executive Magazine.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.