Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT)
As it floats into dock, the Chetzemoka, one of three new boats in the Washington State Ferries fleet, presents an unusual, asymmetrical image. The designers placed the tower structure, which houses the elevators, stacks and staircases, off to one side.
The Chetzemoka, and its sister ships Kennewick and Salish, have also gained a certain fame as the only ships in the fleet that list.
All three boats, designed to hold 64 vehicles, have now been delivered to WSF, although the newest, the Kennewick, has not yet entered rservice. With the Kennewick undergoing its final, get-the-bugs-out sea trials, those around the ferry system, including riders, are continuing to assess various aspects of the vessel replacement program.
The new vessels' introduction acquired a new, unsettling context earlier this month, when Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond, in a presentation to the Legislature's transportation committees, indicated that five ferry routes would have to be eliminated altogether in the absence of further transfers from the state's Motor Vehicle Fund, which has propped up ferry operations for more than a decade. The five routes include both of those which the three new craft will regularly serve.
Tongues firmly in cheek, ferry users have christened the class of ships the “I Leans” (or “Eileens,” if one prefers). Puns aside, the I Lean moniker also rolls off the tongue a lot easier than does the class's official designation, the Kwa-di Tabils (pronounced “kwah DEE tah-bail” and, meaning, “little boat”).
Loading a mildly listing boat is, quite literally, a balancing act, although not one at all beyond the capabilities of professionals. When the listing attracted some attention after the Chetzemoka's 2010 introduction, the ferry system said the ships don't list when fully loaded and pointed out they have passed U.S. Coast Guard stability tests.
The Chetzemoka heels by two to three degrees when it is unloaded and the fuel tanks are close to empty — less if the tanks are full, according to Capt. Mark Haupt, the ferry system's lead master for the new boats. Based on that statement, trigonometric calculation indicates that the low side thus rides as much as 40 inches closer to the water than the high side, but ferry personnel put the differential at much less than that.
Washington State Ferries (WSF) are forced to load cars asymmetrically, beginning on the high side of the boat, to promote balance rather than disturb it further. A partially full boat thus presents the unlikely sight of having all its vehicles on that side, with the other side empty.
A state legislator familiar with the ferry replacement program said he's observed challenges for crews trying to load the boats. “They've got this little jigsaw puzzle every time they load the boat,” said Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, about the crew's perplexity on the Port Townsend-Keystone (Coupeville) route, for which the new boats are primarily intended. Seaquist, a retired Navy warship captain, has traveled that route on the Chetzemoka; he told Crosscut that he had to spend the passage inside his car, because the crew had him park up against the tower, leaving his vehicle so little clearance that he couldn't get out.
The deck's lanes, in other words, are pretty narrow.
The operating demands increase if the Chetzemoka, or either of its sister ships, happens to be on the San Juans' interisland route, where the Chetzemoka was recently pinch-hitting as part of adjustments made to allow unscheduled repairs of the Yakima. Because boats on the zigzagging island route board some vehicles in a direction opposite to their eventual direction of discharge, vehicles turn around inside the boat. Only small vehicles can make the turn aboard a Kwa-di Tabil ferry with any ease, however, because its cramped design offers only a limited turning radius for anything larger.
On the other hand, the Kwa-di Tabils were built for the point-to-point Port Townsend service, where the difficulty in turning around means nothing, since all vehicles exit in the same direction that they board. The feature simply makes the vessels less flexible — a hassle when cascading substitutions affect the San Juans, as has happened more than once.
Once up in the cabin, however, passengers find themselves aboard a most comfortable ship. The ride is smooth and extremely quiet. Passengers can circulate on no fewer than three decks — the lowest one being a mezzanine level with side-facing windows that occupies the space devoted to the mezzanine car-decks on other WSF vessels. A complex architecture of staircases and seating areas beckons to those who want to wander about, have a game of hide-and-seek, or just plain get lost.
Seattle's Elliott Bay Design Group drafted the new boat class's plans on the basis of a design the group had done for a Massachusetts ferry authority, for service between Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard. That asymmetrical boat, the Island Home, lists no more than a degree, according to Haupt, who has ridden the vessel.
John Waterhouse, chief conceptual engineer at Elliott Bay, defended the boats' design in a telephone interview. “This is a design that the state went out and found,” he said, with officials having in view a very tight time frame imposed on the construction. “If the state had had the time to design a boat from scratch, it would have been a different design.” He declined to speculate on how the design might have changed, but added that WSF decision-makers, as “prudent stewards of our taxpayers' dollars,” wanted to save money by using a proven design.
Update: After the original publication of this article, Washington State Ferries provided an additional statement about the new ferries:
The Kwa-di Tabil vessels were named Significant Boats of 2011 by U.S. maritime industry publication WorkBoat Magazine. WorkBoat magazine editors said the industry considers the Chetzemoka, Salish and Kennewick significant because they are the first new boats for WSF in more than a decade and represent a much-needed vessel upgrade for the Port Townsend/Coupeville route. The boats are also distinctive in design, both inside and out, compared to the other ferries in the WSF fleet.
In a sense, what WSF has is the Island Home (which received praise on the Seattle Transit Blog during the state decision making) with some additions and subtractions. The add-ons include a surprise for bicyclists using the boats. In contrast to the long-established practice of tying off bikes with a hunk of rope on the car deck, the regime on the Kwa-di Tabils has been to lug one's wheels up a ramp to the mezzanine, where they can be parked in bonafide bike racks and kept in view, if one chooses, from a seat nearby. The schlep is no big deal, although, on his recent test run on the Chetzemoka, this reporter, who had his own cycle along, overheard a couple of fellow travelers complaining about the matter.
Waterhouse explained that the feature grew out of a request submitted by the Cascade Bicycle Club during the planning phase. He described the club as seeking “better bicycle stowage and access.” He pointed out that a horde of touring bicycles can take up a good bit of room on the car deck, which some would view as compromising their own motor-vehicle access to the ferries. The system has to accommodate all constituencies. A call to the bicycle club seeking comment was not returned. WSF spokeswoman Marta Coursey told Crosscut that “tie-off ropes are being added to the vehicle deck.”
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