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Leaky ferry fix delayed

Repair work on one of the old ferries that serve Keystone on Whidbey Island is going to take longer than expected.

The Illahee had to be pulled from service July 29 after workers discovered a crack in the vessel’s stern tube, which caused the vessel to take on water. Officials estimate that it would have taken two weeks to repair the vessel.

When the ferry entered drydock, workers discovered the tube was too damaged and too corroded to be repaired. Instead workers have to replace the tube.

Because the Illahee is 80 years old, there isn’t a replacement tube available and crews have to fabricate a new one, said Marta Coursey, communications director for Washington State Ferries.

Because of the extra work, the Illahee will be out of commission at least until after Labor Day.

The leak was discovered one day after the vessel underwent a United States Coast Guard-mandated hull inspection. The crack was probably caused by a combination of corrosion and the stress placed on a vessel when it was removed from dry dock, Coursey said.

Until the Illahee is repaired, two equally ancient vessels, the Klickitat and the Nisqually, continue to sail on the Keystone / Port Townsend run. However, Washington State Ferries currently doesn’t have any back-up vessels to fill in should either of those two boats break down.

Hull cracks discovered on the Steel Electric class boats have become an increasing problem. A crack in the Klickitat last March closed the run for a couple of days. The Coast Guard required the ferry system to step up inspections on the four vessels and come up with a long-term maintenance plan.

The Steel Electric vessels are the only ones capable of navigating in and out of the narrow and shallow Keystone Harbor. The swift currents make it difficult to navigate and vessels have run aground in the past.

The Nisqually is now due to go in for its inspection, however, that has been pushed back until September so it’s available on the Keystone route through the rest of the tourist season.

Around January 2008, the ferry system should have a plan that will outline options for new vessels that could someday operate out of Keystone Harbor.

A ferry official attended the Tuesday evening Coupeville Town Council meeting to answer questions about the ferry route between Keystone and Port Townsend.

Washington State Ferries is looking for vessels that can carry a maximum of 100 vehicles and are capable of navigating out of Keystone Harbor.

A committee, comprised of leaders from communities on both sides of Admiralty Inlet, is meeting to provide input about improvements to the ferry run.

Studies on the major changes to the terminals at both Keystone and Port Townsend were stopped because residents fearing further traffic congestion didn’t want larger vessels operating on the run.

Hadley Greene, communications manager for Washington State Ferries, said 100-vehicle boats would help minimize major impacts on each community. The Steel Electric boats carry about 75 vehicles.

Rather than focusing on each terminal separately, the new planning project will focus on the route as a whole.

During the Aug. 14 town council meeting, council members questioned Greene about specifics of route improvements and getting better boats.

“Other than rabbit’s feet, we don’t seem to have much else going for us,” Councilman Marshall Bronson said.

Councilman Bob Clay questioned how long it would take to replace the vessels and how much it would cost.

Greene said she didn’t know how long it would take to replace the Steel Electric boats. The plan outlining options should be ready in January, but it would take a couple of years to find a replacement. She added there currently isn’t any money provided by the Legislature to pay for new boats.

Councilwoman Molly Hughes asked what would happen to the Steel Electric vessels once they’re replaced and Greene didn’t have an answer to that question.

She said the focus is on finding replacement boats and developing a new study for the route.

“They’re looking at this as a corridor now and not just Port Townsend and not just Keystone,” Mayor Nancy Conard said.

Washington State Ferries for several years has been studying ways to improve the Port Townsend / Keystone ferry route. In the past five years, approximately $5.7 million has been spent examining ways to improve the terminals at Port Townsend and Keystone Harbor.

So far, there’s nothing to show for it.

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