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Finally, a new ferry returns to Whidbey Island
Beginning next week, for the first time in about three years, Central Whidbey will once again be served by its very own vessel.
Indeed, the celebration planned for Sunday, Nov. 14, will not only mark the arrival of the Chetzemoka — the first new ferry the state has built in more than a decade — to the Coupeville-to-Port Townsend ferry route, but it also marks the end of years of Band-Aid service on the run.
In the years following the sudden retirement of the Steel Electrics in November of 2007, the run has been served by a variety of vessels never meant for regular use across Washington State Ferries’ roughest route, from whale watching boats and high-speed passenger ferries to the little 50-car Steilacoom II on lease from Pierce County.
But while the Chetzemoka is arriving just in time for what experts predict will be a severe winter, the boat’s welcoming is bitter sweet. Just this past week, the community was rocked by the news that the second boat being constructed for the run may never make it to Whidbey Island due to possible state budget cuts.
Central Whidbey and Port Townsend leaders are only just beginning to organize their response, but it appears that what was being hailed as a major milestone may just be the first victory in what could be an ongoing battle to restore full service on the ferry route.
Bells and whistles
With her fresh coat of paint, purring twin 3,000 horsepower engines, and gleaming superstructure, the 273-foot Chetzemoka is sure to get more than a few low whistles of admiration. And that’s as it should be, according to Marta Coursey, communications director for Washington State Ferries.
“This is a bright, shiny, brand new boat,” she said. “I think you’ll see a lot of elation from the community.”
The $76.5 million vessel has been in sea trials since July, and while several kinks have had to be sorted out — the original inaugural sail date set for late August was delayed due to a vibration issue — the Chetzemoka is everything the public should expect from a 21st century ferry.
From articulating rudders that provide the vessel with superior maneuverability to glimmering electronics that tell how deep the boat sits in the water when under load, a chore that used to be accomplished by hanging a tape measurer over the side, the Chetzemoka is nothing like its Steel Electric predecessors.
A full 17 feet longer and with engines that were once destined for a 144-car ferry, the new vessel is both larger and faster. In fact, while the official sailing schedule isn’t expected to change, commuters can likely expect to shave up to five minutes off their travel time.
Although WSF’s vendor, CDX Ferry Concessions, isn’t expected to start service until mid-week, commuters can also look forward to the return of a full service galley. That includes the sale of beer and wine. But what people will likely notice more than anything else is the ferry’s outside appearance, according to Mark Haupt, a senior captain with Washington State Ferries.
“The vessel looks radically different in large part due to new fire regulations,” Haupt said.
For starters, there are no portholes at the car deck level. While it presents a dark and cavernous appearance, it diminishes the risk of fire, he said. Also, a massive stairwell built onto the port (left) side of the ferry was constructed to serve as a safe house for the entire ship’s complement of 750 passengers in the event of a major fire.
The safeguard does have a downside, however. According to Haupt, the heavy internal steel structure gives the vessel a noticeable list. It’s so pronounced that crew members have nicknamed the ferry the “I-Lean.” Combined with the large sail area created by the lack of portholes in the car deck, Haupt said it could result in cancellations in windy weather, which wouldn’t have happened with the Steel Electrics.
“It’s another factor we didn’t have before,” he said.
However, he also said that while it is a concern it’s not “overriding.” The Chetzemoka has a shallower draft, more power, and greater maneuverability than its progenitors, all of which add up to increased reliability and service, he said.
According to Coursey, Sunday’s ceremony will begin at 10:30 a.m. at the Coupeville terminal with a christening by Gov. Chris Gregoire. Although the ceremony is open to the public, the following trip to Port Townsend is by invitation only. Additional ceremonies, including a blessing from Klallam tribal leaders, will take place there. The Chetzemoka will not actually go into service until the following day.
While little doubt has been expressed over the new ferry’s capabilities, there is considerable worry on Central Whidbey that this will be the only boat the run will get.
Responding to Gov. Chris Gregoire’s statewide budget cut directives, Washington State Ferries has outlined a plan to trim $17 million from its budget. About $10.5 million could be saved by keeping the Coupeville-Port Townsend ferry route a one-boat run year around. The Salish, a sister ship to the Chetzemoka and the second of three to be constructed, would instead serve the San Juan Islands.
Nothing has been finalized, nor will it be until the state Legislature convenes in 2011, but Central Whidbey business leaders and local and state elected officials have all expressed irritation over the sudden and unexpected news.
“I’m not completely panicked, I’m annoyed,” said Sarah Richards, owner of Lavender Wind Farm off West Beach Road.
Richards was among a group of Whidbey Island merchants who traveled to Olympia in February of 2008 after state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond decided to pull the high-speed passenger ferry filling in for the Steel Electrics so it could be used as a special shopping ferry to shuttle people between Seattle and Port Townsend.
The group was successful in both securing mitigation funds in 2008 and 2009, and was instrumental in thwarting early plans to replace the Steel Electrics with three vessels of the Steilacoom II design, plans that were supported by Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano, the chair of the powerful Senate Transportation Committee.
Haugen vows 2 boats
Keeping the route a one-boat run will be significant step back from three years ago when two Steel Electrics operated at full capacity during the busy spring and summer months. The norm then was for traffic in the ferry holding line to back up around Camp Casey.
“If we only have one boat, it’s the equivalent of winter service all year long,” Richards said.
Ian Jefferds, chair of the Ferry Advisory Committee and owner of Penn Cove Shellfish, said the importance of the ferry run is constantly underestimated. It’s not just a transportation link between Whidbey Island and the Olympic Peninsula. It’s a bridge for healthy and sustainable commerce that has been operating at minimal capacity for years.
“The two boats would only get us back to where we were three years ago,” he said.
Haugen, who said she learned of the possible budget cuts with everyone else last week, has vowed to fight for the second vessel. While ferry routes in Southern Puget Sound get the most attention, she said she was confident of a favorable outcome.
“We’re building three boats and two are going on this run,” Haugen said.
“I’m chairman of the Transportation Committee,” she said. “I write the budget.”
But Central Whidbey merchants may not leave it to chance. Both Richards and Jefferds say that getting both boats will also require a strong and unified voice from Whidbey Island and that it wouldn’t be too surprising if another group heads back to Olympia this February. Legislators and ferry officials alike have to know that one-boat service is unacceptable, they said.
“It’s going to be up to the people of Whidbey Island and Port Townsend to let them know this is not a good proposal,” Jefferds said.
• LENGTH: 273 ft.
• BEAM: 64 ft.
• DRAFT: 11 ft.
• PASSENGERS: 750
• VEHICLES: 64
• DECK CLEARANCE: 16 ft.
• HORSEPOWER: 3,000
• SPEED IN KNOTS: 16
• PROPULSION: Diesel
• TONNAGE: 4,623
• BUILT: 2010
• LENGTH: 256 ft.
• BEAM: 73 ft., 9 in.
• DRAFT: 12 ft., 9 in.
• PASSENGERS: 616
• VEHICLES: 64
• DECK CLEARANCE: 13 ft., 9 in.
• HORSEPOWER: 2,896
• SPEED IN KNOTS: 12
• PROPULSION: Electric diesel
• TONNAGE: 1,368
• BUILT: 1927
Sunday christening in Coupeville
The christening of the Chetzemoka begins at 9:30 a.m. at the Coupeville terminal Sunday, Nov. 14. The ceremony will result in the cancellation of three roundtrip sailings. Cancelled sailings include the 8 a.m., 9:30 a.m. and 12:45 p.m. trips from Port Townsend, and the 8:45 a.m., 10:15 a.m., and 1:30 p.m. trips from Coupeville. Vehicle reservations are available for all other sailings aboard the Steilacoom II.