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A harrowing trip on the Steilacoom II

The Steilacoom II pulls into Keystone Harbor during calm seas. The water was much rougher April 15, according to a woman who make a harrowing trip across Admiralty Inlet. - Jim Larsen / Whidbey News-Times
The Steilacoom II pulls into Keystone Harbor during calm seas. The water was much rougher April 15, according to a woman who make a harrowing trip across Admiralty Inlet.
— image credit: Jim Larsen / Whidbey News-Times

Whidbey Island politicians and business people have questioned the suitability of the Steilacoom II for the Keystone to Port Townend ferry route, but none have ridden the boat during heavy seas and told about it.

A firsthand account of such a journey was phoned in this week to the Whidbey News-Times. Nan Laney, a Sedro-Woolley resident, read the News-Times’ April 23 online story about the safety of the ferry being questioned and called to tell about her experience.

Laney, 48, described herself as a veteran sea kayaker who spends several weeks each year on the open waters. In addition, she’s ridden plenty of ferries in Washington and British Columbia. But the scariest trip she’s ever taken occurred on her ride across Admiralty Inlet on the Steilacoom II the afternoon of April 15.

Laney said an earlier run had been canceled, but an announcement at the Keystone dock was made that the ferry would make one more trip to Port Townsend before dark. She watched the 50-car Steilacoom II make the turn into Keystone Harbor and wondered if the return trip would be safe. “Whoa, that boat is pretty overwhelmed,” she remembers thinking. “I’m not even sure this is safe.”

But she drove aboard anyway and soon found herself in the middle of swells she estimated at 10- to 12-feet high. The captain headed in a southerly direction due to the seas, finally turning toward Port Townsend from the Marrowstone Island area. It took several attempts to get the boat turned, Laney said.

“The captain handled it masterfully,” Laney said of his ability to get the boat home safely to Port Townsend. But she was standing on the car deck and watched frightfully as waves washed toward her and the ferry bobbed in the swells.

“It scared the bejeebies out of me,” she said.

Laney said she spent a lot of time talking to crew members and shore personnel, and all shared her concern about the Steilacoom II, though they said they’re afraid to talk to the media because they’re worried about their jobs.

“They’re universally scared to death of this boat,” she said. “Even the staff on the boat is scared of the boat.”

She talked to other frightened passengers, and one logging truck driver told her he would drive around from now on, even though it will cost him $400 in diesel.

The Steilacoom II was built for an inland route operated by Pierce County, but was leased by Washington State Ferries for the tumultuous Admiralty Inlet crossing after the larger Steel Electric ferries were suddenly taken out of service last November.

Laney was having trouble getting her story heard, with politicians and officials not returning her phone calls. She planned to report her experience to the Coast Guard, and she was concerned about the ferry system’s plan to build a Steilacoom II copy for the Keystone route.

“Building another Steilacoom II is a waste of money and puts passengers at risk,” she said.

That plan was killed last week in favor of building two larger boats. In the interim, the Steilacoom II or its sister boat will continue to ply the turbulent waters of Admiralty Inlet.

Whidbey Island politicians and business people have questioned the suitability of the Steilacoom II for the Keystone to Port Townend ferry route, but none have ridden the boat during heavy seas and told about it.

A firsthand account of such a journey was phoned in this week to the Whidbey News-Times. Nan Laney, a Sedro-Woolley resident, read the News-Times’ April 23 online story about the safety of the ferry being questioned and called to tell about her experience.

Laney, 48, described herself as a veteran sea kayaker who spends several weeks each year on the open waters. In addition, she’s ridden plenty of ferries in Washington and British Columbia. But the scariest trip she’s ever taken occurred on her ride across Admiralty Inlet on the Steilacoom II the afternoon of April 15.

Laney said an earlier run had been canceled, but an announcement at the Keystone dock was made that the ferry would make one more trip to Port Townsend before dark. She watched the 50-car Steilacoom II make the turn into Keystone Harbor and wondered if the return trip would be safe. “Whoa, that boat is pretty overwhelmed,” she remembers thinking. “I’m not even sure this is safe.”

But she drove aboard anyway and soon found herself in the middle of swells she estimated at 10- to 12-feet high. The captain headed in a southerly direction due to the seas, finally turning toward Port Townsend from the Marrowstone Island area. It took several attempts to get the boat turned, Laney said.

“The captain handled it masterfully,” Laney said of his ability to get the boat home safely to Port Townsend. But she was standing on the car deck and watched frightfully as waves washed toward her and the ferry bobbed in the swells.

“It scared the bejeebies out of me,” she said.

Laney said she spent a lot of time talking to crew members and shore personnel, and all shared her concern about the Steilacoom II, though they said they’re afraid to talk to the media because they’re worried about their jobs.

“They’re universally scared to death of this boat,” she said. “Even the staff on the boat is scared of the boat.”

She talked to other frightened passengers, and one logging truck driver told her he would drive around from now on, even though it will cost him $400 in diesel.

The Steilacoom II was built for an inland route operated by Pierce County, but was leased by Washington State Ferries for the tumultuous Admiralty Inlet crossing after the larger Steel Electric ferries were suddenly taken out of service last November.

Laney was having trouble getting her story heard, with politicians and officials not returning her phone calls. She planned to report her experience to the Coast Guard, and she was concerned about the ferry system’s plan to build a Steilacoom II copy for the Keystone route.

“Building another Steilacoom II is a waste of money and puts passengers at risk,” she said.

That plan was killed last week in favor of building two larger boats. In the interim, the Steilacoom II or its sister boat will continue to ply the turbulent waters of Admiralty Inlet.

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