A bright day for ferry riders, even in the rain

Washington state's newest ferry, the Chetzemoka, sets sail between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend.

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Chief Chetzemoka was a Native American Chief of the Klallam Tribe near Port Townsend who died in 1888.

Washington state's newest ferry, the Chetzemoka, sets sail between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend.

Islanders are used to waiting for ferries, but for nearly three months? Well, neither the delay of the inaugural sailing of the Chetzemoka nor the drizzly weather seemed to dampen the spirits of the nearly 500 people gathered in Coupeville Sunday morning to celebrate the arrival of Washington State Ferries’ first new boat in 10 years.

The inaugural sailing of the Chetzemoka from Whidbey Island to Port Townsend was originally scheduled for Aug. 29 but was bumped back due to excessive vibrations during sea trials. But now it was all about good vibrations, as politicians and locals huddled under white tents sipping coffee, awaiting the arrival of the Chetzy at the Coupeville Ferry Terminal at Keystone. As she came into sight, the $79.4 million ferry let out a blast and the crowd cheered.

Gov. Chris Gregoire made her way to the new 64-car ferry’s passenger deck, where she donned safety glasses and whacked a bottle of bubbly (swathed in Kevlar) on one of the ferry’s green railings. Invited guests with tickets then boarded the diesel-powered boat for the sailing to Port Townsend.

In a dignitary-laced ceremony on the car deck, Washington State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond declared, “We’re back in business.” Gov. Gregoire reminded the crowd that November three years ago “was a troubled time for all of us.” That’s when four of the state’s Steel Electric class ferries were pulled from service due to hull corrosion and safety concerns, including those that serviced the Port Townsend/Coupeville (Keystone) run. Washington State Ferries leased the Steilacoom II from Pierce County to carry vehicles and passengers between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend until the Chetzemoka could be put into service.

Two additional Kwa-di Tabil Class ferries are in the works, the Salish and the Kennewick. The Salish is scheduled to be deployed in the summer of 2011 to the Port Townsend/Coupeville run, which would restore two-boat service to that route. But with state budgetary problems, there are rumblings that the ferry may be put into service on the San Juan Islands route instead. Although Gregoire didn’t address that concern during her remarks, she said the two new boats would be built. “Guaranteed,” said Gregoire. “On time and under budget.”

Once the pomp and politics wrapped up, the passengers headed up top to enjoy refreshments and check out the new boat. Representatives from Todd Pacific Shipyards, the prime contractor, were on board along with many subcontractors, including Bryan Nichols of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders of Freeland. The Whidbey Island boat building company was responsible for the passenger cabin and pilothouse.

As a ferry rider for 35 years, I found it somewhat strange being on a shiny, new boat. It didn’t feel like it belonged in the Washington State Ferries’ aging fleet. The Chetzemoka is much more European in feel, with its sleek lines, green floors and comfortable seating for 750. One Whidbey Islander was impressed with the large area for bike racks on the mezzanine level.

As the new ferry plied the waters of Admiralty Inlet to Port Townsend, Whidbey Island’s Shifty Sailors entertained passengers with their original sea shanties. One of the tunes was about the first Chetzemoka, a wooden ferry that serviced a number of routes in Puget Sound from 1938-1973. She sank in 1977 off the coast of Washington while being towed to California, where she was to be transformed into a shopping center. ”And Chetzemoka’s spirit will rise again!” sang the Shifty Sailors.

And so she has.


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