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Ferry breakdowns hit Anacortes-San Juan routes hard during peak season

The Washington state ferry Elwa approaches the dock at Orcas Village on Orcas Island in this 2008 photo. The Elwha was briefly sidelined in August after its propeller become entangled in a crab pot’s rope - just one of many problems that plagued the San Juan routes this summer.
The Washington state ferry Elwa approaches the dock at Orcas Village on Orcas Island in this 2008 photo. The Elwha was briefly sidelined in August after its propeller become entangled in a crab pot’s rope - just one of many problems that plagued the San Juan routes this summer. AP

Tom Garrels sat in his car last week at the Anacortes Ferry Terminal, his window rolled down to let in a welcoming breeze. Garrels, co-owner of Harbor Song Art Gallery, was on his return trip to Friday Harbor after gathering supplies for his business.

Like other island residents, Garrels has been hesitant to take day trips to the mainland this summer.

An untimely string of ferry breakdowns and unscheduled maintenance has plagued ferries serving the Anacortes-San Juan Islands routes. The result has been fewer sailings and more headaches for ferry passengers during peak season.

“A couple of time we decided not to make the trip for supplies,” Garrels said. “We just had everything shipped instead. That was a little bit of an expense, but we decided we didn’t want to deal with it.”

Routes out of the Anacortes Ferry Terminal have been hit particularly hard, said Washington State Ferries spokesman Ian Sterling.

“This has definitely been a rough summer for those customers,” he said. “That is a bad situation during the tourism season.”

Systemwide, the number of breakdowns is normal, said State Ferries Director of Vessel Engineering and Maintenance Matt von Ruden. But the number of problems for ferries serving routes out of Anacortes have put undue stress on the local ferry schedule and on passengers.

“Overall it’s probably not terribly out of the ordinary, but it certainly hit the San Juans more severely than normal, “ von Ruden said.

BOAT PROBLEMS

Five ferries typically operate out of the Anacortes terminal. Of those, four have been out of commission at some point this summer.

Having just one ferry sidelined takes a toll.

“It’s like a five-lane freeway,” Sterling said. “You lose 20 percent capacity when one is out. That is a bad situation during tourism season.”

The San Juan Island routes have been down to four ferries for much of the summer. At times, replacement vessels have been brought in to make sure the number doesn’t dip below four.

Problems started in July when the Yakima’s generator went out, forcing State Ferries to go to an emergency schedule. It took maintenance staff about three weeks to fix that vessel and get it back on the water.

Shortly after the Yakima returned, the 2-year-old vessel Samish went down with a damaged coupling. That vessel is still being repaired.

The Elwha was briefly sidelined in August after its propeller become entangled in a crab pot’s rope.

The most recent issue came Aug. 30 when it was discovered during maintenance on the Hyak that there was a serious problem with the vessel’s generator. The generator has since been replaced and the boat will soon return to service, according to a news release.

When the Hyak went out, State Ferries used its backup ferry Kitsap to keep the Anacortes and San Juan Islands routes at four vessels. The Kitsap, though, holds 20 fewer vehicles than the Hyak.

NO EASY FIXES

The state’s ferry system is the largest in the country, with 22 vessels serving 20 terminals. It transports 24 million people annually.

Of those vessels, the 37-year-old Kitsap is the only backup boat.

“We are not a bus company,” Sterling said. “We have one boat (as backup). It’s an intense amount of pressure on the ferry system to absorb a breakdown.”

When breakdowns happen, tough decisions have to be made. The priority for ferry staff is to move the largest number of people as safely as possible.

One casualty this summer has been the Coupeville to Port Townsend route. It’s been down to one vessel from its usual two since August after the Salish’s propeller became entangled with crab pot rope and was damaged.

It’s a somewhat common problem, said von Ruden, as crab pots are difficult for ferry captains to see at night.

There has been some shuffling to alleviate stress on that route, but there aren’t a lot of options.

“There is no good solution when you don’t have a deep bench,” Sterling said. “The choice is to move a boat from somewhere else and impact another route. And there is a high dollar cost to move a boat. Sometimes we can do that, but a lot of the time it’s not an option.”

Unexpected problems with ferries are normal, Sterling said, especially with a large fleet.

The Anacortes/San Juan Islands routes are served by some of the oldest boats in the fleet, including the Tillikum (built in 1959), Hyak (1967) and Elwha (1967). The Chelan was built in 1981 and the Samish in 2015.

The median vessel age is 36 years. Sterling said State Ferries tries to get 60 years out of vessels before they are decommissioned.

Despite the issues, 99.5 percent of sailings are successful, von Ruden said.

“Our crew does a great job with what they have,” he said. “We are the largest in the country … We are taking people to work every day and we are taking people to their vacation destinations. We have a higher demand than any of the other ferry systems so our problems are bigger than any of the others.”

MAINTENANCE

Ferries have to undergo weekslong routine maintenance annually. They must also be put into dry dock twice every five years for heavier work and Coast Guard inspections.

To help keep boats running properly, each ferry has an on-board maintenance crew working behind the scenes, von Ruden said.

Aside from scheduled maintenance, there are also unforeseen problems such as those that have plagued the Anacortes/San Juan Islands ferries this summer.

Adding more backup vessels would help when boats break down or need routine maintenance, von Ruden said.

“When you are operating 19 vessels in the summer for 20-plus hours a day, there’s very little room for error with one spare vessel,” von Ruden said.

But having enough boats to fully serve every routes is only one challenge for State Ferries.

The ferry system is state funded, and as with any state program, there are only so many dollars to go around for maintenance.

For instance, the Yakima has $20 million in backlogged maintenance.

“You are constantly having to make judgment calls with what to fix,” von Ruden said.

There also aren’t enough shipyards where ferries can be dry docked. State Ferries must sometimes book a shipyard months in advance to get a ferry in for maintenance.

“I need more time when I take a vessel out of service and I need the dollars and shipyard,” von Ruden said. “I don’t have enough of any of those things.”

San Juan Island resident Tim Allen, who rides the ferry once or twice a month, said he thinks ferry staff do an amazing job.

Last week, Allen was at the Anacortes terminal waiting for a ferry home. His truck was loaded with plants he had purchased in Arlington to plant around his home.

He said taking ferries has been slightly inconvenient this summer, but overall he’s pleased with how the ferry system is run.

“It would be lovely if we had twice as many ferries and more frequent routes and they ran like trains on a clock,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is, I think actually extremely highly of the ferry system. The attitude of the people is so cool.”

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