By Sharon Salyer and Jerry Cornfield Herald Writers
COUPEVILLE — Phillip Lanphere was sitting in the cab of his tractor trailer, awaiting the departure of the Salish, the state ferry that would take him from the coast of Whidbey Island to Port Townsend.
When asked if he thought that adding tons of ballast to the boat to try to level out the way it lists to one side when empty had made a difference, Lanphere didn’t hesitate.
“It makes the boat sit more level,” he said. “They don’t have to load us to one side to level the boat out.”
One captain who has noticed a change is Chris Beres, who has worked for the state ferry system for more than 30 years.
“I think it handles better,” said Beres who has captained the Salish both before and after the ballast was added. “I think it turns better. It doesn’t seem to have as much vibration during a transit. And it seems to stop better.”
In April, the state added 72.5 tons of granular steel shot to the Salish to erase its lean. The material, purchased from Metaltec Steel Abrasive Co. of Michigan, was poured into a reinforced container built atop the fuel tank.
The state paid $109,000 for the work. It expects to pay a similar amount this fall if ballast is used to get rid of the lean on the fleet’s other 64-vehicle Kwa-di Tabil class ferries, the Kennewick and the Chetzemoka.
“It was a simple fix,” said David Moseley, assistant secretary of transportation in charge of Washington State Ferries.
But not something he desired to do or thought needed to be done.
Customers, crew members and lawmakers had complained about the list on the vessels since the first of the boats, the Chetzemoka, went into service in 2010.
Last year Moseley and former state transportation secretary Paula Hammond told Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, they had no plans to get rid of it.
At the time, they described it as “an intended design feature, which is largely corrected when the vessel is fully loaded with vehicles and fuel and does not impact the serviceability of vessels.”
Earlier this year they relented, bowing to pressures of politicians, comments of riders that the boats looked unappealing and worries of crew that the list affected the ferries’ operation.
“I was certainly pleased that the decision was made,” said Smith, who planned to ride the vessel this past week.
As important as adding the ballast, she said, is the decision evolved from meetings of the experts — vessel captains and engineers — with agency leaders. Staff and managers will get together again to decide if the ballast did in fact affect the boat’s operation in any meaningful way, she said.
Beres said he notices a difference when he switches from the Salish to the Kennewick: “The Salish is performing a little bit better.”
The real test will come when summer ends and the stormy fall and winter weather begins on a run that he said is probably the most difficult in the fleet.
“As an operator, I’d like to see the stability of the boat in rough seas or bad weather, which we get a lot of on that run in particular,” he said.
The combination of westerly winds and ebb currents on the Strait of Juan de Fuca “can create some pretty violent seas,” Beres said.
And turns out the added weight may improve fuel economy, Moseley said.
“Actually, I think it helps a little because the boat sits a little lower in the water, which puts the propeller a little deeper and that helps the mileage,” he said.
The Salish used roughly 12 gallons less per hour in June compared to the same month in 2012, according to figures compiled by ferry staff.
Ferry officials said it is uncertain if the dip is attributable solely to the additional ballast. More will be known after more months of service, they said.
For passengers, it’s pretty hard to tell any difference, given the boat is traveling across one of the roughest stretches of water.
Judy Myers of Chimacum said she couldn’t guess how much more steady the boat was, but could speak to how rocky the crossing could be.
On one stormy trip to Whidbey Island last year, the boat was rocking so much “I was wondering how they were going to dock on the other side,” she said.
Bill Koll of Freeland said it was hard for him, too, to know how much the boat had been stabilized by adding the ballast. With the winds and tides, “the ferry moves around anyhow,” he said. “It’s not like you’re operating in a mill pond.”
Jerry Miller of Oak Harbor said he thinks the new ferries on the Coupeville-Port Townsend route “tend to rock and roll more than the old Steel Electrics.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com