Year-old ferry Chetzemoka will need new propellers

One of the most expensive ferries in state history just got a little bit pricier, but the bill is not expected to be picked up by taxpayers.

State officials say it will cost $76,000 to replace the Chetzemoka’s two propellers after hairline cracks were found in the blades. The $80.1 million ferry began operating between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend a year ago.

The cracks were discovered last month while the boat was in dry dock in Anacortes for routine maintenance, state ferry chief David Moseley said.

The cracks have been repaired and the boat will be safe to operate until the propellers are replaced in three or four months, he said. Officials did not have an estimate for the cost of the preliminary repairs.

The state has filed a claim with Vigor Industrial, formerly Todd Shipyards, of Seattle, which built the boat. The propellers were made by the marine division of the Rolls-Royce company.

Improperly cast stainless steel caused the problems, ferry officials believe. Moseley said a high carbon content made the metal too porous and too brittle.

“The tests that we and others have done indicate that the carbon content was higher than our specifications,” he said.

Steve Hirsh, a spokesman for Vigor Industrial, said company officials are discussing the matter with Rolls-Royce. He didn’t say whether either company would pay for the repairs.

“It is certainly our intent and hope to work this out with Rolls-Royce,” he said.

Officials with Rolls-Royce’s office in Reston, Va., did not return a phone call Thursday.

The Chetzemoka was serving the Port Townsend-Coupeville route along with its sister ferry, the Salish, until early October. The Chetzemoka was taken off the run for a planned seasonal downsizing to one boat and was targeted for deployment in January on the Port Defiance-Tahlequah run in south Puget Sound.

The new assignment for the Chetzemoka upset some people on the Olympic Peninsula because the ferry was named for a former S’Klallam tribal chief in the area. Gov. Chris Gregoire christened the boat a year ago Monday and the ferry began carrying passengers the following day.

State ferry officials said the vessel’s reassignment was made for practical reasons. A new boat, the Kennewick, has a different propeller system from the Chetzemoka and the same type as the Salish, making for easier transitions for crews, officials said. The Kennewick is scheduled to take over for the Salish in January, and then both boats will serve the route next summer. The two ferries were built for about $68 million apiece.

The Kennewick and Salish are fitted with a variable-propeller system, allowing for greater maneuverability, while the Chetzemoka uses fixed propellers. The propellers on the two newer boats were made of different alloys by different subcontractors, according to Hirsh.

The Chetzemoka will go into service with its patched-up propellers in the south Sound in January and will be temporarily replaced while its new propellers are installed, Moseley said.

The Port Townsend-Coupeville route was without a state-built ferry for nearly three years.

Three ferries in the Steel Electric class, including two on the Port Townsend-Whidbey route, were pulled from service just before Thanksgiving in 2007 following an investigation by The Herald that found the ferries were being used to carry passengers despite extensive corrosion and cracking in the hulls. The 80-plus-year-old vessels did not meet federal standards in place since the 1950s.

The route was served by the Steilacoom II, a small ferry on loan from Pierce County, from early 2008 until a year ago. The Chetzemoka’s introduction to service last year was delayed when the vessel experienced excessive vibrations in its sea trials. The vibrations were traced to the propellers, which were found to be spinning too fast and creating an underwater vacuum. The propellers were adjusted to address the problem.

There’s no evidence the cracks found are related to the vibration problem, Moseley said.

“The good news of the story is there was no incident, no accident, we found it when we were doing regular, routine maintenance on the boat and we able to analyze it and fix the problem.”

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