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Washington State Ferries: Replacing Aging Icons

Cherie LaMaine is a ferry walker on the Edmonds-Kingston line: She makes laps around the deck as the boat glides from port to port.

The habit started with her husband when he needed to make frequent trips to Swedish Hospital. “We would still walk, holding hands,” LaMaine said. “He couldn't walk too fast, but it was great.”

Her husband died about 10 years ago, but she still walks for her own fitness and cancer recovery. In 2007, the ferry became a literal lifeline for her. She developed a life-threatening bleed. “I almost died,” LaMaine said. “They actually held the ferry, the ferry made the fastest run they have ever made – the Kingston ferry run – and the ambulance zipped off and they got me to the hospital.”

For LaMaine, the ferry is more than floating steel containers full of cars, commuters and commerce. But at its core, the ferry system is a highway system, connecting the eastern and western parts of coastal Washington and commanding the prominence of interstates 5 or 90.

An Interdependent Fleet

In the 1950s, a series of bridges was imagined to traverse Puget Sound, thus rendering ferries obsolete. Those plans are all mapped out, hanging on a wall in the Washington State Ferry offices.

Today, Washington has the largest ferry system in the world. Twenty-two boats painted with Washington State Ferries Blue and Washington State Ferries Green – the colors’ given names – navigate an intricate network of routes that when diagrammed resembles a jagged-tooth saw.

The boats are interdependent: A problem with one will set up a cascade of issues down the line.

The Klahowya is one of the oldest vessels in the fleet. Mark Gripp is a relief mate on the ship which runs out of Fauntleroy, Seattle. “Well it's almost like a sports car to drive — least it used to be,” Gripp said. “Now we're really limited in how much power we can use in the operations. And that's just due to the age.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "", "fid": "8977", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201402/ferrypugetsound-Flickr-WSDOT.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Flickr Photo/WSDOT (CC-BY-NC-ND)"}]]Retirement And Replacement

The Klahowya is up for replacement in the next couple of years along with two other vessels on the Vashon Island route. New boats are currently under construction at Vigor Industrial on Seattle’s Harbor Island.

Kevin Hein, director of engineering at Vigor, knows the ins and outs of tailoring a ferry for the inland waters of Puget Sound. “You get a pretty unique design that is the start for what is the iconic Washington State ferries look,” Hein said. “The state has requirements that affect the look and the feel from a passenger perspective, such as windows, location of seats, level of furnishing, color schemes. And when you put those all together, you get a double-ended vessel that's green and white and screams ‘Washington State Ferries.’”

[asset-images[{"caption": "A worker at Vigor Industrial works on a new ferry for Washington's fleet.", "fid": "8978", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201402/welderferry-Flickr-WSDOT.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Flickr Photo/WSDOT (CC-BY-NC-ND)"}]]The new ships are being constructed using a modular process, starting with eight sections that are pieced together at the end. Each part is meticulously labeled with a number, location information and even a line to indicate which direction it should face.

“It's almost designed to the point that the part determines where it gets installed as opposed to reading a drawing,” Hein said. “So I have at least a clue of where in the vessel this goes if I find the part laying out in the yard.”

Once the hull is constructed, it’s joined to the superstructure – essentially everything above the car deck. It’s built separately on Whidbey Island and then transported by barge to Vigor.

There, workers skid it – very precisely – by lifting the top part about two inches and sliding it onto the bottom. “That is one of the items that keeps us awake at night,” Hein said.

Hein knows every nook, cranny and challenge that goes into the ferry construction process which gives him some ownership of the end product. “That is the coolest thing going, is to ride on your vessel,” he said. “I’ve gotten texts from friends that say, ‘Kev – I just rode on your ship!’ It is really cool. It is mine, it’s his, it’s ours.”

Read part one, 'Washington State Ferries: Born From A Rates War'

Funding for this story was provided by the KUOW Program Venture Fund. Contributors include Paul and Laurie Ahern, the KUOW board of directors and listener subscribers.