Washington state has the largest ferry system in the U.S. With 22 boats, Washington State Ferries carry 22.5 million passengers and 10 million vehicles a year between 20 terminals. Its biennial operating budget is currently $483 million. The system employs 1,800 people. WSF’s $600 million vessel upgrade program has produced four new boats over the past four years and two more are in the pipeline.

It’s an enormous and complex undertaking that never stops.

It’s also a system that is under growing scrutiny generated by a series of mishaps and vessel design issues that have brought unwanted attention from state legislators, the governor, the media and disgruntled riders who depend on the green-and-white ferries to get them across Puget Sound and the Salish Sea.

For the past several years — and the last year in particular — WSF ferries have experienced numerous difficulties, mostly minor, but cumulatively they have resulted in a growing public relations problem. There have been no major catastrophes — the system’s safety record is very good — but there’s been a rash of issues including problems with new boats, missed sailings due to mechanical breakdowns and crew shortages, a dead-in-the-water vessel during a busy crossing, overloading/underloading/miscounting and a public squabble between a WSF senior manager and the state’s secretary of transportation. 



Perhaps the most serious incident to bedevil the ferry system recently was in September 2013 when the Hyak, a 320' double-ender, collided with a 25' motorsailer while leaving Lopez Island in the San Juan Islands. The small-boat owner/operator and his dog escaped serious harm, but their heavily damaged boat sank while being towed to the beach. A board of inquiry determined that the cause was “human error due to loss of situational awareness” by both the captain and the second mate at the helm of the ferry. The board of inquiry concluded that the collision was avoidable and recommended bridge team management training, refresher courses and sharper definition of duties, especially during specific maneuvers. The board also recommended voyage data recorders for all WSF vessels.

This summer, the Tacoma, one of the system’s largest boats (460', 2,500 passengers, 202 cars, 16,000 hp) lost power due to an electrical problem during a midday run from Seattle to Bainbridge Island and had to anchor up to prevent drifting. A pair of tugs towed the ferry into Winslow while news helicopters circled above. The incident was only the second time in 40 years that a state ferry has had to drop anchor. It also created a huge loss of capacity just before rush hour on a very busy route.

The problem was amplified when ferry officials mistakenly underloaded the Walla Walla, the one boat still on that run. Instead of taking 1,200 passengers, it worked all afternoon and evening with just 600 aboard, while hundreds of frustrated passengers waited several hours at the downtown Seattle ferry dock standing behind yellow tape.

A few weeks after the Tacoma incident, a boat full of Seahawks fans heading from Bremerton to Seattle for a preseason football game had to turn around mid trip because it was overloaded. About 500 fans had to get off and wait for a later boat. 

Actually, it wasn’t overloaded, it was underloaded. Legal capacity of the Cathlamet is 1,200, but being told there were 1,684 on board at departure, the captain returned to the Bremerton dock and 484 people had to get off the boat. However, a follow-up inquiry determined that a clicker counter had malfunctioned. The best estimate of the actual number of riders on the boat that turned around, based on video and other observations, was 1,073. 

Cancelled sailings due to insufficient crew have been another public thorn in the side for WSF. If the Coast Guard requires a minimum of, say, 11-licensed crew on a boat and one calls in sick and a replacement can’t be found quickly enough, the boat doesn’t sail and passengers are left sitting on the dock. Over a year’s time, 99 of 163,000 trips were cancelled due to staff shortages. And over that same time, 381 sailings were missed due to mechanical breakdowns.



Washington’s aging fleet continues to be a serious issue. The problem boiled over in 2010 when all three steel-electric-class boats were pulled from service due to concerns about their deteriorating, riveted hulls. Anxious to get replacements for them and to resume normal operations on the Port Townsend-Whidbey Island route, WSF modified an existing, non-WSF design, which they had Todd Pacific Shipyard and subcontractors build as quickly as possible.

Officially called the Kwa-di Tabil class, the three 64-car ferries are also jokingly referred to as the “I-Lean class,” thanks to their obvious list to port of 1° to 2.2°. 

Based on the Massachusetts ferry the Island Home, designed by Elliott Bay Design Group, the Chetzemoka and sisters are asymmetrical. All elevators and stairwells are on one side to help maximize car-deck space. Properly loaded, the boats could be trimmed level, but with straight vertical, boxy sides, the list was often apparent to everyone.

Although WSF management has denied or downplayed the problem for a year or so, the state finally had ballast added to each boat and corrected the list. 

With the two newest 64-car ferries working the Port Townsend run, the Chetzemoka was moved south to the Vashon Island-Tacoma run to replace the Rhododendron, the oldest boat in the fleet. Unfortunately, the Chetzemoka’s operation has been controversial. Although it has more car capacity (64 versus 50), the 6,000-hp Chetzemoka burns almost three times as much fuel as the older boat. 

And part of the fuel burn comes from pressing hard enough to the docks to heat and keep the engines at proper operating temperatures. With the shorter run, the engines couldn’t get and stay warm enough, potentially causing mechanical problems. For a while, the boat even ran with the propellers at each end turning against each other, “like driving with the parking brake on,” said one observer. 

Following the construction of the three Kwa-di Tabil ferries, the state had Vigor Industrial begin construction of three new 144-car Olympic-class ferries, the first of which, the Tokitae, went to work last summer between Clinton (south Whidbey Island) and Mukilteo.

The principal problem with the Tokitae has been the upper deck car ramps on both sides. With no transition section between the horizontal decks and the 11° ramps, the abrupt angle at the bottom and the sharp edge on the top were being scraped by some vehicles with low clearances. 

“There should have been some transitions rather than a single angle,” said Capt. George Capacci, the recent interim director of WSF and now deputy chief of operations and construction. “The specification we put out for Vigor to build said the ramp angle couldn’t be any greater than 12 degrees. The ramp angle is 11 degrees. It met the specification. We didn’t specify that it should have a specific transition section. This is part of the grooming process. I would love it if the ships were perfect when they come out of the shipyard, but that’s not the case.”  

However, the problem received more publicity when a state legislator from Whidbey Island said she warned ferry officials about the potential ramp problem during construction and was ignored. In June, Norma Smith and another legislator, Larry Seaquist from Gig Harbor, wrote a joint letter to Gov. Jay Inslee alerting him to the issue of “misinformation from Washington State Ferries to the Legislature” regarding the ramps. The letter also addressed “the continuing management issues with WSF.”

The two legislators, one a Republican and one a Democrat, asked Gov. Inslee to appoint an expert review panel for a “thorough and transparent investigation of WSF operations and labor management and present recommendations to the new ferry director for implementation.”



Seaquist is a retired Navy captain (and the last captain of the battleship Iowa) who has been in the state’s House of Representatives since 2006. Although he thinks WSF management needs a complete overhaul, he strongly supports the recent appointment of Lynne Griffith as assistant secretary of transportation for ferries. 

“We know Griffith from running Pierce County Transit,” said Seaquist. “She’s a strong, experienced executive. She understands unions, schedules, dispatching. She’s a credible executive. We want to make sure she’s supported and I’m very interested in what her get-well list is.”

Seaquist also said that WSF should concentrate only on operations and maintenance and leave the designing and building to independent professionals. “The reason ferries are so expensive is because they are designed by the ferry system, not the industry. Our industry here in Washington is designing and building wonderful, high-class craft and selling them all over the world.”

But WSF doesn’t design its ferries, at least not anymore, according to Capacci. “We didn’t design the 64-car ferries, Elliott Bay did,” he said. “And Guido Perla designed the Tokitae. We gave them the specification, they did the detailed design. We’ve gotten out of the design business. People still think we design the vessels, but we don’t. Our engineering department focuses on maintaining that vessel for the next 60 years, which requires engineering expertise. We don’t have the staff that used to be here. The staff in the ‘90s was much larger than it is now.”

Seaquist agrees with the need for long-term maintenance but doesn’t think the fleet is getting it now. 

“In the Navy, we were highly disciplined about maintenance cycles, periodicity, maintenance strategies,” he said. “I think we need to apply that kind of highly engineered maintenance discipline to our boats. Unfortunately the fleet is so small, and they’re running it so hard, they’re not giving our boats enough time. Everybody is always in a can-do-make-do mode.”

Capacci and other senior managers appreciate the demands of maintenance, especially of older boats. “Even with four new ships, the three Kwa-di Tabil class and the Tokitae, we have four new ships in the past four years — which is an incredible shipbuilding effort — our average age is still about 33 years of age. That’s a pretty old fleet and as they get older, they need more and more maintenance,” said Capacci.

Capacci sees the rash of recent problems as unconnected coincidences. 

“I’m not downplaying the incidents we’ve had recently. I’m trying to draw a nexus between them and the only nexus is that they made the news. The system is working well. We had 450 successful sailings yesterday, did you read anything about that?”



A simmering issue for Washington State Ferries is labor relations. 

“From my view poking around in the fleet, the headquarters runs a very hostile workplace,” said Larry Seaquist, a state legislator and retired Navy captain. “The climate for the crews and the ticket sellers is very hostile and difficult to work in.

“We’ve got wonderful crews. I’m a sailor, I’m a retired Navy guy, used to be on the battleship Iowa. I do know crews. Our seagoing folks on these ferries are first-rate people. We just need to support them.”

That support includes providing training for license upgrades, something that WSF is now doing, but hasn’t in the recent past.

Capt. George Capacci, the recent interim director of WSF and now deputy chief of operations and construction, said WSF has now paid for two groups of 15 ordinary seamen to go through AB classes. “We’re starting to gear up on our training schedules and putting people through school to help them advance and fill those vacancies we have.”

Capacci added that the Coast Guard recently increased the number of licensed crew required by the newest Certificates of Inspection. “We’re still catching up with that one,” he said, noting it amounts to about 80 more full-time equivalent slots. 

Dennis Conklin, regional director for the Inlandboatmen’s Union, which represents deckhands and ticket takers, thinks there should be even more crew. He said if WSF had extra crew on board routinely, then missed sailings from someone calling in sick wouldn’t happen. Another alternative he’s suggested is having a few available ABs on paid standby on both sides of Puget Sound. “Then you always have someone available if you needed someone in an emergency,” he said. “That’s how they do it in Metro and all the bus systems, they have bus drivers that just sit, for the day, waiting to get dispatched out. So we said why don’t you do that? It will fix the problem [of missed sailings due to insufficient crew]. At one point they bought into it and were going to do it, and then they changed their mind.”

With 11 unions and 13 contracts to deal with, Capacci characterized the labor situation as a bewildering and complex maze, but “it’s an important relationship, and we continue to work on it. I depend on our unions, I need them. They’re professionals and they need to tell us what they expect to carry out their jobs. 

“I tell everyone here at headquarters that our job is to make sure the ships and terminals have what they need to do their job, and that’s what we try to do,” Capacci said. — B. Buls