Crack puts 80-year-old ferry on shelf

One of the nation’s oldest ferries on salt water likely will be out of service for weeks after springing a leak Sunday that allowed water to stream into the hull at a rate of five gallons per minute.

The Illahee, one of the state’s four 80-year-old Steel Electric-class ferries, developed a crack around its stern tube, a part of the vessel related to its steering system, Marta Coursey, communications director for Washington State Ferries, said Tuesday.

The leak occurred on the Illahee’s first voyage after having been in dry dock undergoing repairs ordered by the Coast Guard.

Coursey described the crack as “small” but said it was letting in water at the rate of about five gallons a minute.

“We immediately took it (the Illahee) out of service,” she said.

Ferry officials believe the crack was the result of stress on the vessel from having been placed in dry dock, a procedure that sometimes triggers leaks in new vessels, too, Coursey said.

The Illahee was taken to a shipyard for more work and is not likely to return to service until mid-August or later.

The Illahee was in dry dock in part to undergo removal of concrete ferry workers had placed in spaces in the hull.

The Coast Guard on June 26 ordered the concrete removed from all Steel Electrics to allow better inspection inside the vessels’ riveted, steel hulls.

The Steel Electrics – the Klickitat, Quinault, Illahee and Nisqually – were built in 1927. Their aging hulls have been leaking for years.

Although Coast Guard officials say they believe the boats are safe and have issued the ferries permits to operate, the agency has described the leak problems in recent months as “serious in nature” and reflecting insufficient maintenance for aging vessels.

The state expects to spend $2 million meeting Coast Guard demands.

The Steel Electrics have been the focus of increased scrutiny since the Klickitat was pulled from service in March with a 6-inch crack in the hull.

Emergency repairs have sidelined the Klickitat 11 times since 1997. The crack was just one of six breaches or holes discovered over the past 10 years, according to ferry system maintenance records.

The state is now negotiating with shipbuilders to construct four new 144-car ferries, more than twice the size of the old ones. Ferry officials are hopeful the new boats will allow them to retire two Steel Electrics sometime after 2009.

Paula Hammond, the state’s interim transportation secretary, last week said she has speeded up by a year a study to determine workable ideas to allow the state to retire all of the Steel Electric-class ferries.

The state’s continued reliance on the Steel Electrics is closely tied to the future of ferry service between Keystone on Whidbey Island and Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula.

That’s because the state’s oldest boats are the only vessels in the 28-ferry fleet small and agile enough to fit into the terminals there.

The state already has spent six years and about $5.5 million studying what to do with that route.

Reporter Scott North: 425-339-3431 or north@heraldnet.com.

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