Ferry grounding draws a crowd

Staff photos / Cynthia Woolbright Whidbey resident Amelia Rose Haigh, 10, wanders on the beach as the Quinault ferry sits beached in the foggy Fort Casey area.  - Cynthia Woolbright
Staff photos / Cynthia Woolbright Whidbey resident Amelia Rose Haigh, 10, wanders on the beach as the Quinault ferry sits beached in the foggy Fort Casey area.
— image credit: Cynthia Woolbright

On a normal day, the Port Townsend/Keystone ferry run takes about 30 minutes. But for 109 passengers on a Thursday morning run, it took over six hours. A few hundred yards from the dock and about 25 yards off the beach, the ferry Quinault ran aground, just minutes from nosing into Keystone dock. The 8 a.m. sailing from Port Townsend didn’t begin unloading passengers until after 2 p.m.

What did people do for all that time? Derek and Harry Campbell of Sedro-Woolley said they spent their hours on the ferry playing cards, talking and looking at the water. “When the ferry stopped, I thought we would be getting off quickly,” Derek said.

Dr. Robert Rookstool wanted to get home to Coupeville. “It’s part of my commute,” he said as he wheeled his bike off. “I hope no one criticizes the ferries. The crew had a long day and they did all they could do. Now I just want to ride home.”

Michael Atkins of Port Ludlow was waiting on a ride. “Everyone was calm and nice. We got free coffee and understood there was nothing to do but wait.”

Landing at Keystone is dicey on good days. Skippers must negotiate a shallow, narrow harbor and tricky currents. Low tides, bad weather and shifting waters often cause runs to be canceled. Thursday morning, tides were low and billowing fog sucked visibility to zero just as the Quinault was heading for the dock.

Joe Nortz, director of operations for Washington State Ferries, was on his way to a Ferry Advisory Committee meeting in Anacortes when he was diverted to Keystone.

Nortz said no one will know exactly what caused the grounding until an investigation has been completed, though he did add that “low visibility and currents were likely culprits” to the incident.

“No one was hurt,” Nortz said, “and hopefully absolutely nothing is wrong and the ferry will float free when the tide changes.”

Low tide for the west side of Whidbey Island was due to be -0.7 at 10:26 a.m., according to Evergreen Pacific’s Tide Guide.

After the ferry ran aground, a tugboat was dispatched from Seattle. Divers were also on their way. The ferry Klickitat was holding at Port Townsend.

The passengers aboard the beached vessel had nothing to do but wait. And wave to TV helicopters and cameras and to people on the shore.

“We heard a horn honk and thought the ferry was coming in,” Dave Parrish said. “We didn’t see the ferry, so I jumped on my bike and rode around the bushes. There it was, stuck.”

Parrish and his wife Peggy of Bellingham often camp at Fort Casey, so the ferries are a regular sight for them. “It’s the first time we’ve seen a ferry stuck,” Peggy Parrish said.

A grounded ferry isn’t much to look at, but more and more people came out to stare at the sight. TV helicopters swooped around. News crews lugged equipment up and down the beach. Photographers crouched and climbed, shooting the ferry, along with the crowds, from just about every angle.

Barbara Ballard and her husband Richard Doyle of Coupeville came down to Keystone. “We have a family friend visiting from Berlin, Germany,” Ballard said. “He just commented ‘You always have such fun, interesting things for me to do and see when I’m here.’ ” As Ballard crunched over beach rocks, she added, “This is the biggest news in years for Coupeville. People will be talking about this for weeks. It’s nice to have a disaster with no one hurt.”

A rescue boat was lowered from the Quinault, not to off-load passengers but to upload Coast Guard investigators.

While the rescue boat was being winched up, Nortz explained that a recent Ferry Advisory Committee at Trinity Lutheran Church discussed shifting the Keystone Ferry Terminal east down Keystone Spit.

Someone on the beach mentioned Lake Hancock as a possible ferry terminal location. “Lake Hancock has its own own unique ecosystem,” Nortz said. “Besides being owned by the Navy, Lake Hancock would present unique environmental challenges for a variety of reasons.”

On the Quinault, passengers were still waiting for a tug and the tide.

On the beach, Jerry and Sue Banta of Mount Vernon marveled at the sight of a grounded ferry. The Bantas camp at Fort Casey. “Whenever we can get in and fish,” Jerry Banta said.

“I thought the horn sounded awfully close,” Sue Banta said. “I opened the trailer door and there it was.”

Demy Dean, a friend of the Bantas, lived at Coupeville “for 51 years” and agreed she had never seen anything like the Quinault grounding.

“We’ve seen fishing boats and private boats go aground but not a ferry,” Dean laughed. “I think (the captain) cut a corner,” she added.

Just outside the ferry landing and about 25 yards off the beach, the Quinault sat, cocked off-kilter.

Mike West of Lagoon Point needed to get to Port Townsend to work on a boat. But he was philosophical. “If I don’t get there today,” he said, “I’ll make it tomorrow.”

Charlie and Betty Brown of Oak Harbor were showing friends around the island. “We were at the lighthouse (Admiralty Head) and heard about the ferry,” Betty said. “We had to come down.”

The Brown’s friend Ellen Walley was enjoying the day: “We don’t get this in Los Angeles,” Walley said.

Later in the afternoon, there was an injury: a young boy scraped his knee on some rocks. Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue members bandaged the kid up and he went back to scrambling around, watching the ferry sit.

Eventually the tug Crowley, assisted by the tide, pulled the Quinault free and towed her out to deeper water to check her engines.

Finally the Quinault pulled into Keystone. Divers were preparing to examine the hull; another Coast Guard inspector would interview the crew.

Passengers and the crew just wanted to finish their long day.

After divers inspected the hull, the Coast Guard cleared the Quinault for service. By 6:45 p.m. full service was restored when the Quinault returned. The Klickitat added an additional round-trip sailing about 7 p.m.

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