Washington State Ferries planners say they want to replace the boats, and have spent more than $80 million and six years trying to build replacements.
Still, they put their faith in the 80-year-old Klickitat, Quinault, Illahee and Nisqually to move people across chilly Puget Sound.
The four vessels have never met Coast Guard safety standards that have been in place for all ferries since the 1950s.
In the places passengers can't see, the ferries are falling apart.
Crews scraping paint off the Quinalt's hull early this month opened a quarter-inch- diameter hole below the waterline.
The Klickitat's hull developed a 6-inch crack in March.
As far back as 2000, tests found places where rust thinned the Klickitat's hull by up to 70 percent.
The ferries, the last of a type called Steel Electrics, have been springing leaks for years.
Why the state hasn't replaced the Steel Electrics is a complicated and often contentious tale with chapters touching on planning, politics, Northwest maritime history, the federal tax code - even allegations of racketeering.
State officials, from Gov. Chris Gregoire on down say they believe the boats are safe.
They point to the Coast Guard's continued willingness to allow the vessels to operate.
"The crews who maintain the Steel Electrics do so with loving care," state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said. "They feel they have custody of some wonderful old piece of machinery."
How much longer love and care will keep the boats afloat is anyone's guess.
Washington State Ferries was ordered on June 26 by the Coast Guard to take immediate steps to correct the frequent leaks on the Steel Electrics.
The problems are "serious in nature" and reflect insufficient maintenance for vessels this old, the Coast Guard said.
The action came after four leaks on Steel Electrics this year, said Mike Anderson, executive director of the state ferry system.
He characterized the leaks as "small incidents," but acknowledged the problems are serious enough to require the state to spend $2 million meeting Coast Guard maintenance demands.
Getting to the bottom of whether the vessels are truly safe isn't easy.
Year after year, the Coast Guard has approved the Steel Electrics for operation on some of the busiest shipping lanes and roughest waters in the state.
But when it comes to safety, "there's no more guarantee than any other ship out there," said Lt. Cmdr Todd Howard, assistant chief of inspections for the Coast Guard in Seattle.
The Herald attempted to inspect the Coast Guard records that document the problems with leaks on the four ferries.
After months of being assured the Freedom of Information Act request was being processed, the Coast Guard this month said the request had somehow become lost.
Others also have had trouble trying to get answers about the ferries' safety, including State Auditor Brian Sonntag.
In 2004 Sonntag received a state whistle-blower complaint about ferry safety.
The auditor's probe was cut short by ferry officials who said they had "serious questions" about state auditors poking around vessels and exploring safety first-hand, records show.
State attorneys told Sonntag he was powerless to force cooperation, that the ferry system had the power to deny his office access to the vessel for independent inspection.
Sonntag considered writing a report criticizing the ferry system for operating vessels that don't meet current safety standards.
But he said he retreated when ferry officials produced Coast Guard waivers and assurances.
"You feel safe until all of a sudden you're not," Sonntag said. "People felt safe on the Titanic."
From the Roaring '20s
The Klickitat, Quinault, Illahee and Nisqually launched in 1927, the year Charles Lindbergh made the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
The boats were designed with technology prevalent just 15 years after the sinking of the Titanic. They had steel engines that drove electric propulsion systems, which gave them the name Steel Electrics.
Their job was to carry passengers, Model-Ts and horse-drawn carriages across San Francisco waterways.
They became surplus in the 1930s after the Golden Gate Bridge and other Bay Area spans opened.
In 1940, a private company running ferries across Puget Sound paid $300,000 for six of the San Francisco Steel Electrics.
Washington State Ferries inherited them when it took over the ferries in 1951.
Today the Steel Electrics are used in the San Juan Islands and on the Keystone-Port Townsend run. Last year, that run alone carried 767,000 people, including many tourists.
The state retired two Steel Electrics 40 years ago.
The old Enetai, now named Santa Rosa, is back on the San Francisco waterfront, permanently installed at Pier 3. It's rented out for parties, and its owner has offices there.
The other boat, once called the Willapa, is for sale in Stockton, Calif.
Dave Parker, a marine construction consultant, was paid more than $100,000 to take the ferry off the hands of its previous owner. He hopes somebody will turn the boat into a museum. If not, it is destined for scrap, he said.
Parker was surprised to learn that his ferry's sister ships are still carrying people through Washington waters.
"It's a miracle," he said.
None of the state's remaining Steel Electrics meets federal safety requirements, in effect since the mid-1950s.
The rules require ferry hulls to be divided into multiple, water-tight spaces and to be able to remain afloat even if more than one of those compartments fills with water.
Vessels that don't meet the standard are at greater risk of sinking or capsizing.
Twenty-six years ago, as the Klickitat was undergoing major renovation, the Coast Guard inspector told the state to retrofit the boat to meet the higher watertight standards.
Ferry officials complained that the work would be prohibitively expensive.
The Coast Guard relented, and instead required the vessel to undergo stepped-up hull inspections.
The extra attention hasn't stopped deterioration.
Emergency repairs have sidelined the ferry 11 times since 1997. The crack found in the Klickitat's hull in March was just one of six breaches or holes discovered over the past 10 years, according to ferry system maintenance records.
When problems are found, the state replaces the aging steel hull plates. That's created "a bit of a patchwork quilt, if you will," out of the Steel Electrics' hulls, said Anderson, the ferry system chief, who has been working for the ferries for 34 years.
Age, not neglect, is the reason for the hull problems with the Klickitat and other Steel Electrics, ferries communications director Marta Coursey said.
"The reality is that these boats are old," she said.
So is much of the rest of the fleet.
More than a third of Washington's 28 ferries are at least 52 years old. In comparison, the oldest ferry in the BC Ferries system in neighboring Canada is 51. The average age of that 36-vessel fleet is 25.
Six years ago, state lawmakers voted to build four new ferries. The idea was pitched as an opportunity to retire the Steel Electrics.
Now, ferry officials are saying the Steel Electrics will stay in service for several more years.
That's because they are the only boats small enough, and agile enough, to maneuver in and out of old ferry terminals at Keystone on Whidbey Island and Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula.
The state plans to build four new 144-car ferries, more than twice the size of the old ones. Ferry officials say they may be able to retire two of the Steel Electrics sometime after 2009.
The ferry system plans to continue using the remaining two Steel Electrics indefinitely.
Progress 'so slow'
MacDonald became the state's transportation chief in April 2001 and is leaving at the end of this month.
He regrets the lack of progress in building new ferries. He'd hoped to have the first new ferry on the water by next year.
"One of my greatest disappointments in the last six years is that the progress has been so slow," he said.
During his tenure, the state spent about $15 million on ferry planning and design.
The state also spent $67 million buying four big diesel engines that it hopes will one day be installed in new ferries.
The move generated controversy, because the ferry system bought the new engines without having precise designs for new vessels. It didn't even have a contract with a shipbuilder.
The state's handling of the $348 million ferry construction contract drove one of the region's top shipbuilders to file a federal lawsuit accusing state officials, including MacDonald and Anderson, of civil racketeering.
The lawsuit was brought last fall by the J. M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corp. of Tacoma. In 2005, a judge ruled that the state at one point had unlawfully eliminated Martinac from the bidding.
The suit is pending even as state officials - at Gregoire's insistence - have been negotiating with Martinac to play a role in building new ferries.
The plan now calls for Todd Pacific Shipyards Corp. of Seattle to take the lead in building the ferries. Martinac and Whidbey Island's Nichols Brothers Boat Builders Inc. are to be the primary subcontractors.
The state hopes to see the first of the new boats by 2009.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Josh Reynolds said that in spite of leaks there is no reason to believe the Steel Electrics aren't up to the job.
"When we post that certificate of inspection on it, that's us saying they're safe," Reynolds said. "I firmly believe in our inspection program. We're making a difference. It's a lot better to prevent something than to have to respond to it."
Martinac executives figure they've spent a decade and $2.5 million trying to help build new ferries.
Yet the Coast Guard and ferry officials seem content to continue operating the deteriorating Steel Electrics, said Martinac attorney Jed Powell, of the Seattle law firm Cairncross and Hemplemann.
Talk that the vessels are safe sets Powell's teeth on edge.
"How can a Coast Guard commander say that with a straight face?" he asked. "The laws of safety are clear - and these boats, flat out, are not in compliance with U.S. rules and regulations for vessel safety."
His investigation since 1999 left him wondering why the state continues to use its oldest ferries on the route between Keystone and Port Townsend, a crossing exposed to rough winter storms and powerful swells from the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The ferry system plans for potential catastrophes on that route by carrying enough rafts to evacuate every passenger. It also knows survivors likely would be on their own for hours, because the route is off the beaten path, Powell said.
Why wasn't the state as concerned as he became, Powell wondered. Then he came across the only answer that seemed to make sense.
The Steel Electrics aren't just ferries.
They are floating tax shelters - and the state has to keep them on the water until 2014, Powell said. By then the Steel Electrics will be 87 years old.
The obscure arrangement happened in the the 1980s, when the ferry system sold the depreciation value of the Steel Electrics to investors around the country seeking tax breaks.
The goal was to bring private investment to public transportation systems, and resulted in an immediate $8.2 million for the ferry system.
It works sort of like selling your family car to a wealthy neighbor. The neighbor needs a tax write-off, and pays you cash up front; you keep using the vehicle under a lease, Powell said.
The program requires the state to keep the Steel Electrics active in the fleet or face millions of dollars in penalties, Powell said. The tax shelter deal figures prominently in Martinac's lawsuit.
State officials angrily deny the lawsuit's assertions. The depreciation deal was done decades ago, before the system's current problems, and was part of a federally-approved program, state officials say.
Transportation Secretary MacDonald and others in state government say they are ready to defend themselves in court, yet remain hopeful the lawsuit will simply go away as Martinac negotiates for ferry work.
Herald writers Jim Haley and Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.
Reporter Scott North: 425-339-3431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Part 1 of 2
A look at the state's aging Steel Electric Ferries.
Today: Washington state relies on 80-year-old ferries on some routes, but are the vessels safe?
Monday: There are many theories why the state hasn't retired its oldest ferries -- and a lot of finger pointing.
Here is a history of Washington State's Steel Electric class ferries:
1927: Steel Electric ferries are launched in San Francisco
1940: Six Steel Electrics come to Washington
1947: The Steel Electrics get new engines
1951: Washington State Ferries is established
Jan. 23, 1981: The Coast Guard allows the Klickitat and other Steel Electrics to continue operating without meeting federal safety standards. Over the next few years the state enters contracts with private investors, making the vessels floating tax shelters.
May 19, 2000: Ultrasound tests on the Klickitat reveal that, in places, 70 percent of the steel hull's thickness had wasted away.
Jan. 23, 2001: A bill is introduced in the state legislature to build four new ferries. In May, Gov. Gary Locke signs the bill into law.
Dec. 3, 2003: Washington State Ferries announces it will build 130-car ferries and invites boat builders to bid on the project. Lawmakers set aside nearly $348 million to pay for the boats.
May 27, 2004: The state auditor is denied access to the ferries as part of a "whistleblower" investigation.
Feb. 1, 2005: Washington State Ferries orders four new engines for ferries that haven't been built.
Feb. 11, 2005: The ferry service announces it has chosen Todd Pacific Shipyards of Seattle to build its new 130-car ferries. A judge four months later rules state officials had improperly ruled out J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding of Tacoma as a potential builder.
Aug. 2, 2006: Washington State Ferries scraps the plan to build 130-car ferries, and instead invites boat builders to bid on 144-car ferries.
Oct. 23, 2006: Martinac files a federal lawsuit alleging civil racketeering among state officials managing the new ferries program.
March 12, 2007: A 6-inch crack in the hull of the Klickitat sidelines the ferry for 2.5 days.
June 26, 2007: The Coast Guard demands increased maintenance and safety inspections for the Steel Electrics.
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