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The Keystone Ferry

"The eight members of the Klickitat's deck crew came to work at 2 p.m. Thursday to find that their boat, along with their belongings stashed in lockers, was on its way to Anacortes for repairs.Which meant they didn't have their pajamas or toothbrushes for their overnight stay in the tiny cabins atop the Klickitat's sister ship, the Quinault.How would you like it if you came to work and found your office gone? asks Capt. Karin Fretz, then shrugs her shoulders.It's not an unusual occurrence for the people who run the ferry between Keystone and Port Townsend. It's one of the most demanding and unusual routes in a state ferry system that hauls millions of people and millions of dollars worth of goods across the water every year.Even though the route is run on the cheap with a couple of the oldest boats in the system - steel electric class, 250-foot sister ships built in 1927 and renovated in 1986 - the sole ferry link between Whidbey to the Olympic peninsula is not immune to the recent proposed round of rate hikes.The ferry system's Tariff Policy Committee proposed new formula for calculating fares based on route length and ridership would increase car and driver fees from the current $6.50 to $7 and walk-on fees from $1.85 to $2.However, the proposal doesn't come with any plans to improve a treacherous landing on the Whidbey side or replace either of the aging, rusting boats. And the proposed fare hike can mean a lot of money for the many commuters, Navy personnel and commercial trucks that make the run. In all, nearly 900,000 people ride the route in a year.The deck hands say they've heard a light rumbling of complaint about the proposed fare increase from riders, but mainly they're too busy running the old ferries to gab with the public.Fretz is an experienced captain who has worked every run in the ferry system. Yet she says the route between Central Whidbey and Port Townsend is the nastiest place I've ever worked.The route cuts across a busy water highway of tug boats, merchant ships, cruise vessels, nuclear submarines, and - worst of all - small private boats navigated by people, she says, who often don't know what they are doing.Fretz explains that tidal action is extremely fast-moving in the area since a huge body of seawater is being squeezed between Whidbey and the Olympics. The winds move down the unsheltered Eastern Straits and whip the water into a frenzy. No other route is cancelled more because of foul weather.There's even a pet seagull that can make things difficult by sitting on the jack staff, which is the rod sticking out from the pilot house that helps with visual steering. The crew named the gull Budette.Then there's the treacherous Keystone landing. Fretz says she has to keep all the factors in mind - water, wind, other boats and the seagull - when she steers the boat into the close-fitting landingThis is by far the toughest, she says as the boat is about a mile out from the dock, traveling at around 12 knots. Fretz and First Mate Kelly Lippincot steer the ferry from the pilot houses on opposite end of the boat, depending on which way the boat in heading. At a half mile out, she slows the ferry by easing down a lever and quietly concentrates on the task, using both hard calculations and the feel of the boat in the water to glide it smoothly into dock.It's very stressful going in there. Very stressful, she says. Other captains have grounded the boats at Keystone many times. We don't like to be close to land, but here you're real close and completely surrounded, she said, pointing to the spit on one side and a RV park on the other.Her job is made even tougher by the fog that rolls in frequently, or the occasional scuba divers or fishing boat that gets in the way. She said she recently had to circle back from Keystone because a scuba diver was near the dock.During the winter the crew rides the Klickitat (when it's operating) and both the Klickitat and the Quinault go into service during the busy spring-to-fall tourist season. The ferry is currently running from 6:40 a.m. to 10:40 p.m.The deck crew - which consists of the captain, first mate, two able-bodied seamen and two ordinaries - are on a tourist watch schedule, an unusual system which Fretz says the ferry system is trying to phase out. They work 24-on and 24-off - a 24-hour shift followed by a 24-hour break - for 10 days straight. Then they get a 10-day break.The two crew members in the engineering department have a more normal schedule of seven days on and seven days off.Overnight, the ferry is tied up and the deck crew can sleep in tiny bunk beds in four tiny cabin rooms. There's even a shower. Though working on the car deck may be a cold and tiring job, the crew members had to go through a lot to get there. Terri Clements, a deck hand, said that people who work on the car deck or cabin are all trained to be interchangeable. They have all gone through training and testing for firefighting, abandoning ship, loading ferries and rescue work.Ferry crews are responsible for saving lives every year. Cyndi Boulding, an ordinary seaman, said she helped pluck a drowning man from the water at Port Townsend three years ago.We do a lot more than direct cars on and off, Boulding said. The public doesn't have any idea what it's really like to run a ferry. "

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