Newest ferries, Salish and Kennewick, may stay in Admiralty Inlet

With it now almost certain that Central Whidbey will get its second summer ferry, a vessel switch-a-roo may be in the future.

According to Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano, Washington State Ferries officials may be considering having the Salish and Kennewick permanently take over service on the Coupeville-to-Port Townsend ferry route once both vessels are completed.

The Chetzemoka, the ferry currently in operation on the route, would be sent south to replace the 1947-built Rhododendron on the Point Defiance-to-Tahlequah route, a task that has from the start been intended for the Kennewick.

All three vessels belong to the Kwa-di Tabil class and were commissioned to replace the 80-year-old Steel Electrics. They were retired in 2007 for safety reasons. The Chetzemoka went into service this past November, while the Salish is expected to go into service this summer followed by the Kennewick this winter.

But the ferry-shuffle may only be a rumor. Haugen said she has received no official word that such a move is intended or even under discussion but learned of it indirectly from ferry officials.

“Nothing is for sure,” Haugen said. “It’s just a possibility.”

The purpose of the prospective move is based on differences in the vessels’ propulsion systems. The Salish and Kennewick have variable-pitch propellers — technology that increases control and stopping power  — while the Chetzemoka does not.

Keystone Harbor leading to the Coupeville terminal, referred to as “The Hole” by some ferry workers, is commonly considered the most challenging ferry landing in the entire system due to its narrow entrance, strong currents and shallow depth.

If the run were to be serviced by vessels with greater maneuverability, it could improve reliability, Haugen said. As it is, even with the brand new Chetzemoka, the route has more cancellations due to tides and currents than any other route.

Washington State Ferries spokeswoman Marta Coursey said she hasn’t heard any discussions about any ferry swap and that the plan is still to send the Kennewick to the Point Defiance-to-Tahlequah route once it enters service sometime this winter.

Coursey said the information may have come from comments made by ferry operators who have spoken about the challenges associated with the Coupeville route.

Haugen said she learned of the plan from her staff, who in turn heard it from ferry officials. While she said again that she knows of no final decisions, she speculated that there may be some hesitancy within the transportation agency to make the change due to political pressures associated with the Chetzemoka.

The vessel was the first permanent replacement vessel on the route and was named after the S’Klallam tribal leader Chief Chetzemoka by communities on the Olympic Peninsula.

“I think they are concerned because people feel the boat should stay in Port Townsend,” Haugen said.

People in Coupeville, who also wanted to name one of the three ferries after a tribal leader but were turned down, may not have the same concerns. Many are just happy to know that two boats will once again be serving the route.

“I’m so thrilled about the second boat that I can’t see straight,” said Eileen Hunter, president of the Coupeville Historic Waterfront Association.

Ferries officials had been planning to send the Salish to routes in the San Juan Islands as a cost saving measure but its placement on the Coupeville run during the summers is being established by state legislators.

According to Hunter, when the Steel Electrics were retired, foot traffic in front of her shop on Front Street declined by about one-third, from 3,000 to 2,000 people a week. Getting back those customers is far more important than the name on the side of boat, she said.

“That’s nothing short of a miracle,” Hunter said.


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