Outages, slowdowns and mechanical issues have plagued routes leaving from the Anacortes ferry terminal this summer, but Washington State Ferries staff say they are doing all they can to keep the boats running.
“It’s been a tough summer,” said Matt von Ruden, ferries director of vessel engineering and maintenance. “It really hit the San Juans more severely than elsewhere.”
The ferry system has been on emergency status a few times this summer on the San Juan island routes. Today, the Hyak was taken from its route for work on a problem with oil and water mixing in a generator. It should be back in the water by Thursday, WSF spokesman Ian Sterling said.
Five boats generally serve the Anacortes area. If one is out, it’s like reducing a five-lane highway to four lanes. A shortage is particularly hard on the San Juans, Sterling said.
The Samish, normally on Anacortes runs, is at the ferry’s maintenance shipyard at Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island because of a problem with a damaged coupling, von Ruden said. The 38-year-old Kittitas is dry-docked for routine maintenance at Dakota Creek Industries in Anacortes.
Maintenance crews are working hard to keep boats on the water, von Ruden said. The state ferry system, with 20 terminals and 22 boats, still has about a 99 percent reliability rating.
“I’m really proud,” he said.
The only spare vessel this summer was the Kitsap. It had a problem early and was out of service for many weeks. That meant whenever anything else happened, people felt it.
When you have as many as 22 boats going at once and several operate for more than 20 hours a day, there is little room for error, von Ruden said.
An aging fleet
Washington has the biggest ferry system in the country, but it is aging, von Ruden noted.
The addition of four new Olympic Class ferries, including the Samish in Anacortes, helped bring the average age of the fleet to 28 and the median to 36.
Still, three ferries hit 50 this year, as the Yakima, the Hyak and the Kaleetan were all built in 1967. When a boat reaches 50, a gold band is painted on its stack.
The Kaleetan is currently running at about half-power. The alternative would be to pull it from its route to be fixed, Sterling said. But the decision was to keep it going for now because there are bigger problems to address.
The oldest is the Tillicum, which is 59. It was scheduled to be decommissioned when the Samish went into the water in 2015, but instead, WSF kept it as an alternate. It’s slow and doesn’t carry a lot of cars, but it’s useful if another boat is out of service, von Ruden said. WSF wants to hang onto it until about 2021 or so.
The goal is to get about 60 years out of each boat, Sterling said. That is virtually unheard of in other ferry systems, he said.
Older boats have engines surplussed from World War II destroyers. Problems include both finding parts and people who know how to work on them, Sterling said.
“We try to upgrade to new technology and stay current,” von Ruden said.
The Salish was recently dry-docked because of a couple incidents. It touched the bottom of Keystone Harbor, and it had a major tangle with a crab pot float. That left the Port Townsend route with one boat, which cut service in half, Sterling said.
Crab pots are a problem each summer, especially at night, von Ruden said.
Ropes tied to the pots get wound around the propeller shaft and can cause serious damage. This year, WSF is using a remote-operated vehicle to help deal with the pots. The ROV can go under the water and take the rope out of the shaft before it does major damage. The Salish wasn’t fixed in time but since then, four more boats have been cleaned up with the ROV, von Ruden said.
He said ferry leadership is working with the Department of Ecology on dealing with crab pots that aren’t where they are supposed to be.
There are three levels of maintenance on the ferries.
The organizational level happens on the boat during runs or while they are docked for the night. Three or four engineers are assigned to each vessel to help with day-to-day issues or quick fixes. Some of that happens below deck and some happens when the ferries aren’t in use. For many ferries, that window is only a few hours long.
Most people don’t see those engineers, but they keep the ferries running smoothly, von Ruden said.
Each ferry is also taken off its run for about three weeks per year. The vessel is docked at the maintenance shipyard in Eagle Harbor Marina on Bainbridge Island. That shipyard belongs to WSF, von Ruden said. That maintenance is planned several months in advance and is capped off with a Coast Guard inspection.
Twice every five years, the boat must also be taken out of the water and worked on at a dry dock. That includes checking out propellers and propulsion system, painting and doing heavier work.
That generally takes four to 12 weeks and is driven by the Coast Guard, von Ruden said. It’s important work to the preservation of the boats.
Boats with major issues also need to be dry-docked, but there are only three dry docks in the state, so the wait can be long, von Ruden said. A boat sometimes has to sit for several weeks before work can begin.
Moving a broken boat ahead of scheduled maintenance just delays work and creates a risk of bigger problems.
For example, the Yakima has about $20 million of backlog preservation that should be done to it. Von Ruden said crews have to choose which issues to address first.
“We will never catch up,” he said. “We don’t have the time or the dollars to do it all.”