Boat leased for Keystone ferry run starts tests today

KEYSTONE — After more than two frustrating months without a car ferry, commuters and business owners on Whidbey Island and Port Townsend are anxious for trials to get under way today on the Steilacoom II.

If the leased ferry performs well, it may begin carrying cars and people as early as next week.

“I’m going to be watching it with a great deal of interest to see what happens,” said Sarah Richards, president of the Central Whidbey Chamber of Commerce. “We want car service to resume as soon as possible — and right now the only option I know of is the Steilacoom II.”

Washington State Ferries is leasing the 54-car ferry from Pierce County for around $42,000 a month, according to Marta Coursey, communications director for the ferry system.

The Steilacoom II is scheduled to remain in service until at least one new ferry is built to replace the state’s four 80-year-old Steel Electric-class ferries, which were pulled from service Nov. 20 because of safety concerns.

Crew members who once operated Steel Electric ferries are scheduled to train on the Steilacoom II this week. Led by Mark Haupt, former captain of the Klickitat, they’ll practice safety drills, conduct landing exercises and work on operating the boat, Coursey said.

In order to prepare the Steil­acoom II for the often rough waters between Keystone and Port Townsend, crews have added life rafts and automatic depth indicating systems. They’ve also upgraded the ferry’s electronic navigation equipment.

Some ferry riders are nervous that the Steilacoom II will bounce around in the waves and won’t be safe, but Washington State Ferries has received Coast Guard approval.

“Captain Haupt has been captaining for a very long time on that route,” Coursey said. “He knows exactly what he’s doing. He will only run that boat when it’s safe and when he knows everything is well. He’ll also be very careful about customer comfort. That’s another thing we’re considering and watching for. There’s a reason why we wanted to run that vessel during the worst winter months we could. We wanted to be able to challenge it.”

The trials are not expected to disrupt passenger-only ferry service between Keystone and Port Townsend. Initially, the agency planned to pull the Snohomish from the route and replace it with a privately owned whale-watching ferry, which would have to dock a half a mile north of the Port Townsend ferry dock.

However, after State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, complained, ferry officials decided to keep the Snohomish on the run. Haugen said she first learned about the whale-watching boat plan from a newspaper article.

“I was furious,” she said. “Again, things are happening and I’m not being told. At least I was able to turn this ship around.”

Businesses on both Whidbey Island and the Olympic Peninsula have reported drops in profit since car-ferry service stopped.

Tim Caldwell, general manager of the Port Townsend Chamber of Commerce, said he’s excited for service to resume, but nervous that the Steilacoom II won’t handle the route well and will have to sit out during bad weather.

“We believe an intermittent service is just as detrimental as no service,” he said. “If people aren’t sure of the schedule of the boat, they won’t take it anyway. However, we do appreciate the response the Department of Transportation and the state Legislature has given this.”

The state hopes to seek bids on one or more of the new ferries by Feb. 15.

Herald writer Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.

Reporter Kaitlin Manry: 425-339-3292 or

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