State's newest ferries are proving pricey

The ferries were bought at a high price and have some odd characteristics: the tendency to list, the engines that seem to waste fuel, and tight quarters for vehicles. They are very comfortable, but the state is looking at a potentially bleak future for ferry service finances. Updated: The ferry system has provided a statement about an award given to the new ferries.

Crosscut archive image.

Washington state's newest ferry, the Chetzemoka.

The ferries were bought at a high price and have some odd characteristics: the tendency to list, the engines that seem to waste fuel, and tight quarters for vehicles. They are very comfortable, but the state is looking at a potentially bleak future for ferry service finances. Updated: The ferry system has provided a statement about an award given to the new ferries.

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.” 

Rep. Seaquist said the new boats were using more fuel than other boats, and thus driving up operating expenses. Critics say the 6,000-horsepower engines exceed the need, but WSF happened to have them warehoused. Seaquist noted that the listing profile in itself worsened the ships' hydrodynamics, causing it to consume extra fuel.

It was not immediately possible to quantify the three boats' burn rate relative to other WSF ships, however, since figures are not available for Kwa-di Tabils and alternative ship classes plying the same route and subject to the same conditions. One of the new boats, which have been found to use 75 gallons of fuel hourly on the Port Townsend route, is however moving to take over the Tahlequah-Point Defiance run, where the Rhododendron currently sails, consuming 30 gallons of fuel hourly.

“It's hard to answer the question,” WSF's lead master Haupt said, in reference to concerns about fuel wastage. Larger engines have their advantages. He alluded to the need to take a longer, zigzag course when high winds cause heavy sea swells that must be navigated at an angle. “It's nice to have the power to keep the schedule if we fall behind. A lot of time we have to take a storm course. When you can take it a knot or two faster, it's nice.”

The new boats, he said, “are incredibly agile. There's a lot of pressure to keep the schedule. We're able to make up time [but] we're burning some extra fuel."

A fuel-saving feature known as feathering allows two of the Kwa-di Tabils to run with one propellers disengaged, but the efficiency mechanism, which the Chetzemoka lacks, has proven time-consuming to apply in operation, and Haupt said it would probably be used little on the Port Townsend route, and not at all on the short Tahlequah crossing.

And then there's the pricetag. When the Kennewick enters service — probably later this month — the bill for the three ships will wind up at about $210 million, or $70 million a boat. They were built under the terms of bids received from a single bidder — Todd Pacific Shipyards of Seattle, as lead contractor — since state law mandates that all WSF ferries must be constructed in the Evergreen State, by shipyards with a state-approved apprenticeship program. (The latter requirement, in effect, very much complicates construction of WSF ships by non-union shipyards: Todd, a union employer, was the only shipbuilder in the state that fully met all the requirements.)

In this case, Todd led a consortium of companies, all in-state, who together built the three ferries on a more stringent timeline than would have been feasible for any single contractor. Sources commenting for this article all agreed that the haste contributed to the boats' shortcomings. Seaquist pointed to Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island), whose district includes the Port Townsend route, as having imposed the timeline. 

 “Of course I did,” Haugen responded in an e-mail statement. “People in Coupeville and Port Townsend were affected personally and professionally. When we lost the Steel Electrics so unexpectedly, it was a terrible impact on residents and businesses alike. They needed replacement ferries as fast as we could possibly build them. I wouldn’t have been doing my job as a legislator if I hadn’t done that.”

A speeded-up production schedule also means more overtime payments and an increased reliance on expedients. And, finally, there's the ban on out-of-state construction. The Island Home, which entered service in 2007, cost $32 million, less than half a Kwa-di Tabil's invoice. The Massachusetts vessel was built in Mississippi on the basis of nationwide bidding. A report completed in 2010 by the Passenger Vessel Association at the behest of Gov. Chris Gregoire concluded that “WSF is paying a high price for requiring in-state construction.”


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors