Crew says its ‘good, old boat’ is still seaworthy

PORT TOWNSEND — It’s been a summer of cracks, leaks and questions for Washington state’s oldest ferries.

The Illahee and Quinault — two 1927-vintage Steel Electric-class ferries — remain in dry dock undergoing major repairs. On Tuesday, their sister ships, the Nisqually and Klickitat, still were making regular trips from Keystone on Whidbey Island to Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula.

That soon will change.

On Sept. 10, the Nisqually is scheduled to head to a Seattle shipyard for Coast Guard- mandated inspections and work on its aging hull and propulsion system. It is the same sort of work that turned up problems that unexpectedly sidelined the Illahee and Quinault.

Washington State Ferries officials say that for a while, at least, the 80-year-old Klickitat will be on her own carrying people, cars and trucks across Admiralty Inlet.

They also insist she is up to the job.

“I love this old boat. It is a good, old boat,” Andy DeGraaf, one of four chief engineers assigned to the Klickitat’s crew, said Tuesday. He’s been working on the Klickitat for 14 years.

The state since March has wrestled with a string of hull cracks and other problems on its Steel Electric-class boats. The latest troubles revolve around corrosion of the stern tubes, the cast-iron pipes that house the ferries’ propeller shafts where they run through the hull.

The vessels’ stern tubes have been in saltwater since 1927, when the Steel Electrics were first launched in California’s San Francisco Bay.

The Coast Guard ordered closer inspection of the stern tubes after a 20-inch crack developed July 29 in a stern tube on the Illahee. The crack allowed water to stream into the hull at a rate of five gallons per minute. That stern tube, as well as its twin on the other end of the ferry, was deemed too corroded for continued use.

The same problem was discovered on the Quinault. Crews at Todd Shipyards in Seattle have been attempting to fabricate a pair of new stern tubes for both vessels. Ferry officials are hopeful the work will meet Coast Guard approval and the vessels can return to service; the Illahee in mid-September, the Quinault in mid-November.

This year’s unexpected repairs for the Steel Electrics are expected to approach $4 million, said Marta Coursey, communications director for Washington State Ferries. That’s about double what was anticipated in late June, when the state estimated the cost of addressing Coast Guard concerns about hull cracks.

Some below decks at Washington State Ferries have suggested privately that recent Steel Electric problems are linked to a decision in the late 1990s to stop investing in preservation work on the old boats. The money instead was set aside to help pay for constructing new ferries — boats that are still years away and, as planned at 144 cars, too large to replace the Steel Electrics.

About $3 million that would have been spent on preservation of the Steel Electrics was redirected to construction of new ferries, but that hasn’t stopped needed work, Coursey said.

“We are still keeping them going. We are still repairing them. It is just how the money is allocated,” she said.

DeGraaf and others told reporters touring the Klickitat on Tuesday that the vessel is well-maintained and seaworthy.

DeGraaf disagreed with recent statements made by another Klickitat chief engineer, Mike Marston, that ferry officials took an avoidable risk when they operated the Klickitat for most of two days in March with a six-inch hull crack that was seeping water.

“I had no qualms running it that way,” DeGraaf said.

Mike LaCroix, senior port engineer and a top maintenance official for the ferry system, said the crack was carefully monitored and did not grow during operations. It is true the Steel Electrics are aging, but the state is exercising prudence in their operation, he said.

“I had my wife and two small children on the Nisqually on Sunday. I know the boats are safe,” LaCroix said.

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