For old ferries, it’s the end of the line

WINSLOW — This is how it ends.

At Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island, the oldest ferries in Washington’s fleet are being readied for their final voyage.

Radars, radios, life jackets and other items are being stripped from the 1927-vintage Klickitat, Illahee, Quinault and Nisqually. Memories now stroll where passengers once relaxed amid the polished brass, etched glass and warm oak trim that made the Steel Electric-class vessels unique among state ferries.

On Tuesday, oiler Bob Pace was preparing the Klickitat for what lies ahead. He’s come to know the ship well during his 36 years with the state ferry system. He understands her time is past.

“Ah, they gotta go,” he said of the Steel Electrics. “The state got their money out of them.”

Today marks the anniversary of the Nov. 20, 2007, decision by state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond to pull the Steel Electrics from service because of safety concerns.

State officials are finalizing a deal to sell the old ferries to Environmental Recycling Systems of Seattle, which plans to cut them up for scrap.

Soon, ferry officials expect to see the Steel Electrics tied in pairs behind seagoing tugboats. When the hawsers pull tight, the ferries will be towed into Puget Sound, past the towers of Seattle’s skyline and along the west coast of Whidbey Island. Beyond Admiralty Inlet, a westward course will take them to the Pacific Ocean and a two-week run south to the Mexican port city of Lazaro Cardenas. There, ship-breaking crews await.

Doug Russell, chief naval architect for the ferry system, said he’s been told it likely will take about two weeks from arrival for the Steel Electrics to be reduced to pieces. He and others have been methodically preparing them. Among other tasks, propeller shafts and rudders need to be fixed in place and wave breaks installed to limit heavy seas from sweeping the now-vacant car decks.

Tests were already conducted to look for polychlorinated biphenyls and other chemicals, once added to marine paint but now considered toxic waste, Russell said. Results so far are promising.

Russell said he’s convinced that much of the machinery contained within the old ferries will find new life. The diesel engines are in great shape; the generators ready to light job sites or small communities.

“Our crews are very good at taking care of their vessels,” Russell said. “They love them.”

They also made the old boats home, adding personal touches. Below decks in the engine room of the Quinault, for example, the sister of a crew member painted a mural, depicting the ferry steaming past a tropical isle.

“The M/V Quinault takes a vacation,” the caption read.

Last year Hammond, a professional engineer by training, had only recently taken over as the state’s transportation chief when confronted with questions about the Steel Electrics. She ordered them to stay tied up after being presented with survey results that showed the ferries suffered from corrosion, cracks and other ravages of age.

She later determined there simply were too many questions about the safety of the then-80-year-old hulls.

The decision temporarily halted service between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend and also left the ferry system with no backup boats. The lack of boats continues to plague the fleet, particularly with the state facing stepped-up maintenance and preservation demands from the Coast Guard, largely because of problems found on the Steel Electrics.

“Never a doubt that I did the right thing,” said Hammond, who remains convinced that pulling the Steel Electrics was the correct call. “So many people affirmed that, and reaffirmed that to me,” she said Wednesday.

Reaction within the ferry fleet continues to be mixed but muted.

Karl Jacobsen, who served as staff chief engineer on the Klickitat for nearly two decades, spent much of 2008 telling state lawmakers and ferry customers that retiring the Steel Electrics was a decision grounded in politics, not safety concerns. Now assigned to the Hiyu, he’s resigned himself to the Steel Electrics’ fate.

“I’m sorry to see them go,” he said. “They served the fleet well. They were sort of the workhorses of the fleet.”

Hammond wrote off the old ferries after the state spent millions in 2007 trying to address leaks and cracks. The Steel Electrics were built decades before modern standards for water-tight compartments, a federal law since the 1950s.

As problems with leaks mounted, the Coast Guard mandated upgrades on the Steel Electrics, including replacement of the stern tubes, which contained the propeller shafts where they passed through the hull. The cast-iron pipes had been marinating in salt water for 80 years. One cracked on the Illahee, triggering a major leak.

The ferry system replaced the Illahee’s stern tubes. When similar work began on the Quinault, crews took advantage of down time to inspect the hull in ways they hadn’t done before, particularly in hard-to-reach areas along the ferry’s keel.

That’s where riveted steel plates from the ferries’ first days remained. Similar inspections had not been attempted on the other boats.

Engineers ultimately determined nearly half of the Quinault’s hull plating was so rusted it needed to be replaced at a cost of $8 million. Before work to save the boats stopped, the state spent nearly $1 million prepping the Illahee for the same sort of close inspection.

Engineers estimated repairs on that boat could cost more than $5 million, records show. Similar inspections were not attempted on the Klickitat or the Nisqually, both of which still have their original stern tubes.

The state kept the old ferries in service in part because they were the only vessels in the fleet big enough to safely carry cars and freight across Admiralty Inlet, but also were sufficiently maneuverable to navigate challenging Keystone Harbor on Whidbey. Although state lawmakers authorized the ferries’ replacement in 2001, the state still doesn’t have a contract to build new boats.

Ferry officials were disappointed earlier this month when the lone bid submitted for a new Island Home-style 64-car ferry came in more than 30 percent above engineers’ estimates. It was the second time this year that an attempt to contract for new ferries through the state’s shipbuilders resulted in a lone bid and higher-than-anticipated costs.

Hammond said the difficulty in striking a deal just underscores how challenging it is to build new boats, particularly for the run that had been served by the Steel Electrics. She anticipates that there will still more discussion, particularly about how many ferries the state can reasonably afford to build.

“I think we are going to move forward,” she said. “Whether we buy one, whether we buy two, that is the question we have to sort out.”

Reporter Scott North: 425-339-3431 or

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