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The roughriders: Foot ferry hits turbulence

When high winds blow through Admiralty Inlet, one thing that won’t be on the water is the Snohomish, the passenger-only ferry that’s been sailing out of Keystone Harbor since the antiquated vehicle ferries were pulled due to safety concerns.

The Snohomish, which is a relatively light foot ferry with an aluminum hull, has difficulty navigating the route when it’s windy and waves are churning. The ride is rough enough that officials find it’s better to simply cancel sailings until conditions improve.

The Keystone to Port Townsend route across Admiralty Inlet is notorious for its rough water and unpredictable weather and has caused problems for even the most seaworthy vessels in the past.

On Sunday, the route was closed for approximately two hours in the afternoon and later, the two final departures were canceled because of the rough conditions. Then, on Monday, service was suspended for several hours due to continuing foul weather.

It’s ultimately the captain’s decision on whether to cancel a sailing due to conditions, said Traci Brewer-Rogstad, deputy director for Washington State Ferries. A variety of factors including tides, current, wind and visibility can contribute to a captain’s decision to suspend service.

She said the Port Townsend/Keystone route is subject to the roughest weather of all the ferry routes in the system.

Liz Rosbach, special education teacher at Coupeville High School, knows first-hand how treacherous the conditions can be on the Snohomish.

As a commuter, she travels on the ferry regularly and enjoys the 17-minute trip when the water is relatively calm. However, when she rode the ferry Nov. 26, the trip took 47-minutes and made the commuters anxious as the boat pitched left and right and up and down at the same time.

“There were a lot of white knuckles and a lot of closed eyes,” Rosbach said of the experience. She understands the need to close the ferry route during high winds and she has to pay closer attention to the weather when she is planning her commute.

Washington State Ferries instituted passenger-only service in late November to provide some kind of ferry service from Central Whidbey Island.

Susan Harris-Huether, spokesperson for Washington State Ferries, said between 130 and 150 passengers a day are riding the Snohomish. To help with the commute, ferry officials altered the ferry schedule so that arrivals correspond with local transit systems.

Harris-Huether said the ferry system is working on a contingency plan should commuters become stranded at the end of the day when the ferry route closes down due to inclement weather or other problems.

Should that happen, commuters will hop into vans and be driven down to Edmonds, walk on to the ferry, and get into vans in Kingston and be driven up to Port Townsend. The detour would take several hours and require two ferry crossings.

She said that people won’t be left stranded overnight at the ferry terminal.

Harris-Huether doesn’t know on Monday when that service will become available as officials are still working on details such as training and liability issues.

Washington State Ferries pulled the Steel Electric ferries from service due to hull pitting found in the Quinault and fears that similar problems could extend to the three remaining vessels. The four 80-year-old vessels are the only car ferries in the system capable of navigating in and out of narrow Keystone Harbor.

Officials don’t expect a Steel Electric to return to the Keystone to Port Townsend route until the middle of February.

In the meantime, commuters are keeping a wary eye out for the weather as they make their travel plans.

Jerry Mingo, who works for the Island County, has been walking onto the ferry and then bicycling to and from work for years.

Even before the removal of the Steel Electrics, he would expect to stay in a hotel room one or two times a year should he get stuck on Whidbey Island and unable to get to his home in Port Townsend. He often brings work home with him at the end of the day just in case he has time to kill in a hotel room.

As for Rosbach, she has a car on Whidbey Island that she uses to get from the ferry terminal to school. She is planning to stay with friends when the weather turns bad so she doesn’t miss any days of work.

She said she enjoys the speedy, 17-minute ferry trip the Snohomish offers when it’s in operation. In fact, she would like to see some kind of passenger ferry service running permanently on the route that could alternate with vehicle ferries.

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