Cracked ferry’s future in doubt

A crack in a key part of one of the state’s oldest ferries has engineers scrambling for a solution, but not promising a repair.

If their plan doesn’t work out, the future of the 80-year-old Illahee is uncertain.

The 20-inch crack in the cast-iron stern tube of the Illahee can’t be closed by welding, so ferry officials are working with a Seattle shipyard, trying to create a replacement from a large pipe, Marta Coursey, communications director for Washington State Ferries, said Wednesday.

It’s a 21st century attempt to fabricate a part that was made in 1927.

Although ferry officials hope the Illahee repair will be successful, there are no guarantees, Coursey said.

The same holds true for her sister ferry, the Quinault, which also is undergoing dry dock repairs and inspections mandated by the Coast Guard.

“They are a work in progress,” she said of the two Steel Electric-class vessels.

The stern tube is a pipe that contains the ferry’s propeller shaft where it runs through the hull.

The crack in the Illahee was discovered July 29 when the vessel was making its first voyage after having earlier been placed in dry dock to undergo Coast Guard-mandated work. That included removal of concrete along the stern tube that previously prevented close inspection of the vessel’s riveted steel hull.

The stern tube crack was big enough to allow water to stream in at a rate of five gallons per minute. Ferry officials pulled the Illahee from service the same day.

Langley resident Sue Frause was on board the Illahee on July 29 when the crack was discovered. Frause said she didn’t realize anything was wrong with the ferry until later in the day when she received an e-mail alert that it had been pulled out of service.

“Obviously it was in the process of ‘cracking’ while I was on board!” she said. “I’m sure none of the passengers was aware of the issue, but it was somewhat startling to find out what transpired.”

Engineers initially believed the crack may have been caused by stress during dry dock. A close inspection found more corrosion of the stern tube than anticipated, Coursey said. The crack’s cause remains under investigation.

Work on the Illahee is expected to take weeks. With the Quinault also in dry dock, that means the state is down to just two operating Steel Electric boats.

The Klickitat and the Nisqually are both being used on the route between Keystone on Whidbey Island and Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula. The Steel Electric-class ferries are the only boats in the state’s 28-vessel fleet capable of using those terminals.

The Coast Guard earlier ordered the Nisqually to undergo mandatory inspection and repairs, but this week it approved using the boat on the Keystone-Port Townsend run until Sept. 9, after the end of the summer tourist season.

The Coast Guard also took the unprecedented step of ordering ferry officials to inspect the Nisqually every four hours to make sure everything works properly, said Lt. Cdr. Todd Howard, chief of domestic vessel inspection for the Coast Guard in Seattle .

“We’re not asking them. We’re telling them,” he said. “If they want to maintain the Nisqually on that route, they have to do this. That’s what it comes down to.”

The Coast Guard also plans to conduct weekly internal structural exams to try to make sure that the ferry is safe. The Coast Guard usually conducts that type of exam every 2 years on state ferries, Howard said.

The Coast Guard on June 26 said ongoing problems with leaking hulls were “serious in nature” and ordered the state to step up maintenance on the rusting hulls. 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.

The Coast Guard is monitoring Washington State Ferries’ attempts to replace the Illahee’s damaged stern tube.

Workers at Todd Shipyards in Seattle are trying to make a custom stern tube out of a 17-foot long steel pipe, Howard said.

“It’s an extremely heavy duty piece of pipe,” he said. “In the end, it will be a much superior piece, but also at a steeper price.”

After the crack was discovered, the Coast Guard ordered an “extraordinary” amount of inspection on the Quinault, which had already been taken out of service for a maintenance check, Howard said.

“Because of the problems the Illahee has brought to light, they are taking a whole lot more extra precautions in the Quinault,” he said.

Workers have removed the Quinault’s propeller and pulled the shaft out of the stern tube in order to get a better look inside. So far, that boat’s stern tube looks good, but workers have noticed some places where the vessel’s hull has corroded so much that it must be replaced, Howard said.

The state this year already has spent $1.5 million on dry docking, inspections and repairs of its four oldest ferries, Coursey said.

The work necessary to bring the Illahee into compliance with regulations is significant. In addition to the problems with the stern tube, a separate crack was found in the Illahee’s hull, Howard said.

“It is a big deal,” he said. “It is a lot of work to get it repaired.”

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. The new boats won’t replace the Steel Electrics on the Keystone-to-Port Townsend run.

Reporter Scott North: 425-339-3431 or

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