SEATTLE — Just in time for the busy Memorial Day weekend, an oil leak within a ferry boat is forcing Washington to shuffle nearly a third of its car-carrying fleet and cut capacity on its already crowded San Juan Island service.
Complicating the intricate vessel swaps is a ferry rescue drill with the U.S. Coast Guard and Seattle Fire Department on today.
While it might be harder to travel among the San Juans and to a lesser degree some other routes, the inconvenience shouldn’t be all that bad for a normally crowded holiday weekend, said Washington State Ferries spokeswoman Susan Harris-Huether.
“I realize everybody wants to think the sky is falling, but it isn’t,” she said Monday.
The 124-car Chelan has an internal leak in its oil system and ferry mechanics need to fix it before it gets worse, Harris-Huether said. It has been pulled off the Anacortes-Sydney, British Columbia, run and taken to the ferry repair yard on Bainbridge Island, resulting in the cascade of boat-switching. How long the repairs will take won’t be known until mechanics check the vessel this afternoon.
The Sealth, which carries 90 cars, was to take part in the abandon-ship drill just north of Bainbridge Island. But the Chelan will be used instead and the Sealth used to carry passengers.
About 100 ferry system volunteers will take to life rafts from the Evergreen State and transfer to the Chelan to test rescue procedures, communications and coordination among the three agencies.
The drill originally had been scheduled earlier in May, but unexpected repairs to other boats forced a delay, Harris-Huether said.
The switches among the 20-boat fleet will keep capacity close to normal on most routes, and even add a few car spaces on the Anacortes-Sydney run. However, room on the service that San Juan residents rely upon to move among their islands will be at a premium.
It’s a confusing plan: The Sealth is being moved to the Seattle-Bremerton run to replace the Kaleetan, which is replacing the Elwha on its Anacortes-San Juan run so the Elwha can sub for the Chelan. The 34-car Hiyu, the system’s only reserve boat, will be on the San Juan inter-island run instead of the 87-car Evergreen State, which will go to Bainbridge Island for scheduled maintenance after the drill.
Harris-Huether said if the Chelan is fixed quickly, the Sealth would be able to take over for the Hiyu and the schedule start returning to normal.
The ferry system always recommends holiday travel at non-commuting hours. Harris-Huether suggested riding boats early Saturday and returning early Sunday — better yet, leave Thursday afternoon and come back Tuesday. Monday’s single return trip from Sydney already is booked.
Finding enough ferries has been tough since four elderly boats were retired in 2007. The state plans to build four new vessels.