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Marine Log

December 9, 2007

WSF's Steel Electric problems mount

Washington State Ferries (WSF) is having more problems as a result of its apparent belief that ferries can be kept operating virtually in perpetuity.

As inspections on its venerable Steel Electric class ferries have progressed, Washington State Ferries (WSF) reports updated information on the status of the two ferries that are in drydock at Todd Pacific Shipyards in Seattle for inspection and maintenance work.

WSF owns four Steel Electric class vessels Quinault, Klickitat, Illahee and Nisqually. These vessels, built in 1927--to serve in San Francisco before the Bay Bridge opened-- predominantly serve the Port Townsend-Keystone and San Juan Islands inter-island routes. They are the only ferries in the system capable of operating in Keystones narrow and shallow harbor.

The Quinault and Illahee have been in drydock since November 28. Since then, crews and shipyard staff have worked around the clock to prepare and inspect external and internal hull spaces of both vessels to find any steel problems. Removing paint on the vessels' 80 year-old riveted steel hulls allows WSF to determine the feasibility and extent of needed repairs.

On Tuesday, November 20, Washington State Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond announced that WSF would pull all four of the Steel Electric class vessels out of service due to concerns about their safety. Work on the Quinault revealed significant hull pitting along the keel that WSF believes likely extends to all four Steel Electric class vessels. This decision led to vehicle service being suspended on the Port Townsend-Keystone ferry route.

Ongoing work is revealing more pitting and corrosion.

"As work has progressed on the Quinault, inspections have revealed additional steel that needs to be replaced and the extent of needed repairs continues to grow," said Paul Brodeur, WSF Director of Vessel Maintenance and Preservation. "These are old vessels and until all the paint is removed on the hull we will not know the full extent of the problem."

At this time, 70 percent of the paint on the hull has been removed and WSF has discovered that at least 45 percent of the Quinaults hull will need to be replaced before the vessel can return to service. This percentage may increase if WSF finds more pitting as it completes inspection of the Quinault and Illahee over the next few weeks.

In the same dry dock at Todd Shipyard, workers are water blasting the Illahee's hull to remove the paint and inspect the steel underneath. Early inspections of the outside of the vessel show that there are areas with pitting that require repair, similar to what has been found on the Quinault.

"These new developments add complexity to our decision about how much to invest in these 80 year-old boats," said Paula Hammond. "We are moving forward quickly with plans to replace the Steel Electric class vessels, and I understand how difficult it is for residents of Port Townsend and Whidbey Island to be without vehicle ferry service."

WSF says it plans to use emerging information about the condition of the Quinault and Illahee to inform decisions about next steps.

"We continue to assess the full range of hull pitting and this will help determine the extent and the cost of needed repairs. As we move forward, our first priority is the safety and service needs of our customers," Hammond said.

As reported earlier, WSF's steel problems are not confined to the Steel Electrics. On December 1 it announced that the Hyak, a 40-year-old 144-car Super Class ferry, would remain at Dakota Creek Shipyard in Anacortes three weeks longer than its originally scheduled maintenance period for additional steel replacement on the its hull.