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An outstanding ferry ride is a rare thing and, up until now, very few shipbuilders and operators have come up with much in the way of ideas for improving things. There’s much room for improvement on board and the noxious diesel smoke that most ferries pump out is unlikely to impress those taking some air on the rear deck.

Yet there are signs of progress. Some ferries now use batteries, liquefied natural gas or even hydrogen, and Norway has dozens of electric ships in service, some made by Brødrene Aa, a family-owned business based in Vestland. Denmark is also making headway with its electric car ferries. When it comes to aesthetics, there’s much to be admired in the seemly interiors of Aurora Botnia, a new Finnish design that will sail between Vaasa in Finland and Umeå, Sweden.

So, building on this momentum, we’re floating 10 proposals to make travelling by ferry more attractive to passengers and more profitable for the vessels’ operators.

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1.

Natural finishes

Forget the standard range of pitiful faux-pine panelling married to white plastics and iffy chromes. Instead, let’s riff on the seafarers of old with more real wood and natural hues. In sunnier spots, a splash of brighter colours could work if used sparingly. Spend a little more on the fit and finishes, and passengers will feel the difference. Teaming up with local interior designers to bring in regional materials and furniture made nearby will also help.

2.

Show us your deck

Too many trips confine passengers to stuffy cabins listening to the chunter of the engine. Not on our ideal ferry. If the sun’s out, then we’ll make the most of space to embrace the breeze on deck. Sturdy awnings and partitions can create spaces that are shielded from the elements. There are also loungers, tables for full service and a bar for drinks.

3.

Rethink the rations

Fatty fast food and insipid coffee tends to be standard fare at sea. But why? Why not give passengers something that won’t turn their stomach if the swell kicks up? On shorter trips, install a well-turned-out kiosk with hot drinks, strong coffee and snacks made with fresh produce picked up daily at port. On longer runs or larger ferries, investing in a restaurant good enough to tempt guests who aren’t commuting could add another revenue stream. Design-wise, it’s a good idea to use non-slip crockery and ditch wobbly thin-stemmed drinking vessels.

4.

Sell while you sail

Many ferries have one shop selling the same unimaginative fare – novelty chocolates, alcohol and generic tourist tat. While acknowledging that booze is quite good business, some operators should partner with nearby shops, artisans and designers to offer products that passengers might be pleased to discover and tempted to take home.

5.

Uniform decisions

While those in charge of the ship tend to have the right idea (classic works best here, and who isn’t a sucker for a sea captain), the rest of a ferry’s crew are often lucky if they get a grubby polo shirt with a badly embroidered logo. We’d opt for a much sharper and more distinctive look that’s comfortable, fresh and hints at the headier days of travel. We’re not going the full tricorne, mind, but there’s certainly room for some striped jerseys from Saint James.

6.

Strike up the band?

On longer runs, why not bring along some live music, preferably out on deck, weather permitting. Even better if you take it as a chance to promote undiscovered talents from the destination country or island. But do vet the playlist; this isn’t the breakthrough moment or platform of choice for your cousin’s heavy metal band.

7.

Let there be light

All boats would look even more buoyant if they ditched the harsh leds and fluorescent floodlights in favour of some dimmer lights – though not so dark that you find yourself tumbling over the armchair in the galley. You might need fog lights for safety but, for heaven’s sake, don’t direct them on guests while they’re enjoying a drink.

8.

Raising the bar

This can vary in theme depending on location: a cosy snug for aquavit cocktails if you’re in the fjords or a fresh taverna-style affair if you’re island-hopping in the Aegean. Indoor bars should be light and airy, and you can create spaces on deck with comfortable chairs, stools and cover if needed. Ferry designers take note: keep exhaust fumes away from guests.

9.

Nod to the nautical

Careful with this one: it doesn’t mean plastering the walls with anchors. Instead offer passengers some insight into the technical bits of the ship – the geography outside, the speed, the weather or the navigation. It’s fascinating. The crew should be on hand to help – even to answer questions about the journey, the area and whatever else passengers might wonder about. Which brings us to…

10.

Keep the captain

Autonomous shipping technology is increasingly functional, meaning that many ships will soon be able to steer themselves. Self-driving vessels might be economical on transoceanic cargo runs but they’re also tempting for those operating passenger ferries. But doesn’t this leave one of the key draws foundering? As the name suggests, passenger ferries are about transporting people rather than goods – so we think there’s still a case to be made for a captain’s reassuring presence and expertise.

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