The classic ferries that got away

One of the old ferries: down again. Credit: Sue Frause

When the Washington State Ferry System sold its four scrapped Steel Electric-class ferries this year, it lost money, and the state lost a possible business and environmental-enhancement opportunity. WSF sold them for $200,000, yet according to state documents the cost of keeping them around until the sale closed was over twice that amount, with $303,412 of it in insurance premiums alone. The sale came after a half-million-dollar-plus deal fell through when scrap metal prices dropped sharply. Another potential deal fell through when the prospective purchaser failed to secure adequate moorage facilities.

The lashed-together Quinault and Nisqually left on August 7 and were towed through Puget Sound to Ensenada, Mexico. The Klickitat and Illahee followed a week later. The vintage and classic ferries have a date with a welder’s torch at a recycling yard.

Pulled from service on Thanksgiving eve 2007 — a decision that WSF insiders in both the fleet and the engineering office still regard as being ill-advised — the boats had been sitting around ever since doing nothing but gathering rust, mostly at WSF’s Eagle Harbor maintenance facility on Bainbridge Island.

Passionately loved by crews and ferry patrons alike, the 256-foot Steel Electrics were built in 1927 for service in the Bay Area. They were purchased and brought to Puget Sound by the Black Ball Line, which was itself purchased by Washington state in the 1950s, becoming the foundation of Washington State Ferries. Replete with leaded-glass windows and wood trim, the boats plied the waters of Puget Sound for decades. Most notably they were reliable ferry mainstays between Keystone Harbor on Whidbey Island and Port Townsend. Ultimately, they were stripped of everything that wasn’t welded to the deck as they awaited their fate.

It was an expensive wait. In addition to the insurance premiums, WSF paid nearly $15,000 in towing fees and $112,000 to conduct surveys on the level of environmentally-hazardous PCB materials on the vessels. That’s a total bill, counting insurance, of $430,000.

Could they have been saved? It’s not as though there wasn’t a demand. Port Townsend wanted to use one as a tourist attraction, or perhaps convert it into shops and restaurants. The Washington Scuba Alliance had hopes of sinking one to create an artificial reef that would attract marine life and become a destination attraction for divers. Both proposals soon ran afoul of regulatory obstacles and official indifference.

According to Port Townsend City Manager David Timmons, neither the city nor the dive club even got to the point of doing a full cost/benefit analysis on purchasing a couple of the Steel Electrics. As far as the city was concerned, a combination of the regulatory morass and tidal and weather conditions unique to Port Townsend created too many obstacles, he said. Port Townsend couldn’t find a place to moor one of the ferries that wasn’t subject to frequent southerly winter storms and tidal conditions. Timmons also said it would have taken one full-time employee just to chip rust. Also, there were the environmental issues stemming from the Shoreline Management Act.

Relying on the successful experience since 1992 of creating artificial reefs in British Columbia where there are seven (including a Boeing 737 jet aircraft and a 441-foot Victory ship), the Washington Scuba Alliance suggested using one to create an underwater park that would attract divers from all across the United States and the world, said Mike Racine, president of the group and a retired software entrepreneur.

“There were only two uses for them: scrap metal or sunk as a dive park,” he added. Using the historic ferries to create a dive park made sense. “What a great way to give them a whole new life consistent with their maritime history.”

The Alliance’s hopes were dashed, however, when they tried to convince state agencies in Olympia of the merits and economic benefits of an artificial reef. Instead of embracing the idea, Racine said, state officials lacked the vision to see the possibilities and the benefits of the artificial-reef idea. “There are few people within state government who have an entrepreneurial spirit,” he said. He did credit WSF for being open to the idea, but noted that the agency was under a legislatively-mandated obligation to sell the boats.

WSF, under what spokeswoman Marta Coursey termed “the legislative direction to sell them as first priority,” couldn’t cut their losses, get rid of one or more boats for nothing or next to nothing, and end up with less out-of-pocket costs. In an e-mail, Coursey wrote:

“It is also not a simple matter to ‘give’ the boats away…There are a number of expensive mitigation processes, serious environmental compliance issues regardless of who owns the vessels, and finally, there would be no equitable way of determining who could get one for free. Any method, including a lottery, would result in someone or some community being disappointed.”

Racine’s sentiments about the difficulties in dealing with the state were echoed by Howard Robins, president of the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia, an organization with almost 20 years of experience creating them in the coastal waters of western Canada. British Columbia provincial government “gets it,” he said. They’re dialed in on the biological as well as the economic benefits of artificial reefs such that there are seven along the Straight of Georgia with an eighth slated to be created sometime in the middle of 2010, Robins said. He extended an invitation to Washington state regulators to come up to British Columbia and look at the work being done to prepare the HMCS Annapolis, a decommissioned 371-foot destroyer that will be, if all goes according to plan, sunk in Howe Sound near Vancouver sometime next year.

Robins said that what he called “game playing” on the part of the multitudinous overlapping jurisdictions in the United States gets in the way of seeing the bigger picture. “Regulators are grid-locked on the issue,” he said. In Canada, on the other hand, the 366-foot HMCS Chaudière, the first vessel that was sunk for use as an artificial reef, was purchased from the Canadian Defense Ministry for just over a dollar.

A spokeswoman for the Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands office, which manages the state-owned bottom of Puget Sound, said, “We don’t advocate putting foreign objects into the water because it changes the dynamic of the marine ecosystem.” To Robins, the changes in the dynamic of the marine ecosystem are evidenced by how the sunken Boeing aircraft, which has been there since early 2006, is now home to 110 species of marine life.

Estimating the cost to prepare a boat for sinking as an artificial reef at anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million, Racine said the funds would have had to be privately raised. But according to several experienced divers and an area dive-oriented business owner, the economic benefit to financially strapped Puget Sound communities such as Brinnon and Port Gamble, both near Hood Canal, could have been significant. Their estimates ranged from $500,000 to $3 million a year to the community within the closest proximity of an artificial reef.

Mark Peil, who works for the city of Port Townsend, has 17 years of scuba diving experience. He’s in the water every weekend, and he spends a good amount of money when he goes to artificial-reef dive parks in British Columbia. He spends it there, not in Washington state. He noted that the best local diving is in the winter when times are tough for area tourist-industry businesses. “That’s when they need the dollars divers would bring the most,” he said. Racine estimates that he drops $1,500 for lodging, meals, and incidentals over a long weekend diving the artificial reefs in British Columbia.

Don Coleman, who operates the dive charter boat Downtime out of Pleasant Harbor on Hood Canal (the only dive charter boat in the area), said that an artificial reef would create an opportunity for another seven boats, and he welcomed the competition. He remarked on how using a Steel Electric to create an artificial-reef dive park could have boosted the local economy without disrupting the rural nature of the community. “We desperately need economic help in this area. An artificial reef would bring a million dollars a year without having to build a strip mall or an industrial park.”

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