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Time is running out for a classic ferry
Jack Barbash loves his commute. And he says it’s because he gets to ride the Rhododendron.
The middle-aged environmental research chemist who has commuted to Tacoma for more than a decade uses the 12-minute ride across Puget Sound to wander the edge of the Rhododendron’s deck and stand under the open sky or journey upstairs to relax on the upper deck, shoot the breeze with fellow commuters and, on nice days, look out at Mount Rainier.
“Almost every trip I’m out there,” he said. “It’s still a magical thing for me to be able to do.”
Lately, however, Barbash’s enjoyable commute has been tinged with sadness. The 64-year old boat is scheduled to retire early next year and be replaced with a newly built, slightly bigger vessel.
Barbash says he and other commuters will miss the Rhododendron — or the “Rhody,” as Islanders often call it — because it is unique in the ferry system. Originally constructed in 1947 to cross the Chesapeake Bay and restored in 1993 for use on the Tahlequah-Point Defiance route, the boat charms riders with its brass railings, polished wood benches and unique upper deck layout, allowing passengers to walk along either side of the vessel.
“I’m a hopeless fan of the (Rhododendron),” Barbash said. “There are a lot of us who have a very deep love of the boat.”
However, Washington State Ferries (WSF) officials say the Rhododendron’s construction is outdated and doesn’t meet current coast guard safety standards. Since at least 2009, it has been slated to be replaced with the third vessel in the new Kwa-di Tabil class, the Kennewick, which is currently under construction at Vigor Shipyards in Seattle.
Last Friday the state Legislature passed a transportation budget that included the final $32.1 million needed to complete the Kennewick’s construction. The three 64-car ferries cost the state a combined $213.2. The Chetzemoka is already serving the Port Townsend-Keystone route, and the Salish will join it in July, each replacing 80-year-old Steel Electric ferries deemed unsafe in 2007.
Paul Brodeur, WSF’s director of vessel maintenance and preservation, said the Rhododendron — the oldest boat in the fleet — was next on the list for replacement because it is an aging single-compartment vessel with a riveted steel plate construction that makes it more vulnerable to perforation and sinking.
“When she was built the standards were not what they are today,” he said. “If she was to go on a rock or have a hole punctured by hitting an object and flooding was to ensue, if the boat’s pumps couldn’t keep up, that boat would sink because there’s no way to isolate the compartment,” he said.
Though Brodeur doesn’t believe the boat is currently a safety hazard, he said WSF didn’t want to wait until it became one, recalling the problems caused when the Steel Electrics were suddenly pulled from the fleet.
“On the Rhody we’re ahead of that process. ... We don’t want to do things in an emergency,” he said.
Though many are pleased to know the south end will be getting a brand new boat, Barbash, a well-known Islander with an infectious laugh who recently served on the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council board and performs on the Island with local bands such as Island Fusion, is frustrated, saying the state has not been transparent in its decision-making process.
When Barbash heard several years ago that the Rhododendron may be next in line for replacement, he went searching for answers, hoping he could prove the change wasn’t necessary.
Barbash said WSF’s limited replies led him to believe the route simply needed a newer, larger boat. At the same time, employees and engineers who worked on the Rhododendron told Barbash that the boat’s somewhat frequent mechanical issues shouldn’t be an obstacle. All of its parts were interchangeable, meaning it could always be repaired. What’s more, he said, ferry workers felt the state could have been maintaing the boat better if it did so based on the suggestions of workers, those who knew the boat best.
“My understanding is that the Rhody is of such a simple construction that it could continue to run indefinitely if properly maintained,” he said.
In late 2006, Barbash wrote to members of the Legislature’s ferry committee, urging them to compare the costs of replacing the Rhododendron with simply putting it on a strict maintenance schedule and suggesting that increased bus service to the ferry would encourage commuters to walk on instead of drive — eliminating the need for increased car capacity.
Barbash never heard back from any of the lawmakers, though, and he didn’t get much farther with ferry officials. At one point, Barbash said, David Moseley, head of WSF, told him his cause was a hopeless one.
“Mosely told me to give up. … That’s essentially what he told me,” he said.
Feeling that he was fighting a loosing battle, Barbash no longer actively campaigns to save the Rhododendron. And though he understands the boat’s construction doesn’t meet current safety standards, he wishes the state would have communicated with Islanders more about the decision, perhaps holding a public meeting to gather feedback.
“They just said, ‘Well there’s nothing that could be done,’” he said. “I would have appreciated some more information being made available, with a concerted effort on public outreach to explain with detail the factors behind the decision.”
Debby Jackson, who commutes on the Rhododendron to her job at Mary Bridge Children’s Health Center in Tacoma, also wishes WSF would have communicated more about its plans. She was recently surprised to hear from a fellow commuter about the boat’s replacement and said she, too, will be sad to see it go.
“I’m not outraged at the whole thing. Maybe it’s the best for economics and safety,” she said. “But it’s nice to know ahead of time and not be surprised all of a sudden.”
Jackson said, half joking, that perhaps commuters who love the Rhododendron could purchase it and find a way to operate it themselves.
“But that probably wouldn’t work out economically,” she said.
Brodeur, with WSF, said that the Rhodedondron has likely seen the end of its sailing days. Because of its outdated construction, the boat can operate on very few runs in the ferry system and will be laid up in Eagle Harbor until the Legislature determines its fate.
“The Rhody has very little utility to the rest of the WSF,” he said.
Jon Flora, who commutes on the Rhododendron and has a love of old ships, said sometimes inoperable boats are converted to restaurants or floating offices.
“It would be fun if somebody could come up with a use for it,” he said. “But old vessels are very expensive to take care of.”
Flora, president of the Franciscan Foundation, said he enjoys commuting on the Rhododendron but understands that it’s an old boat that can’t serve the route forever.
“I don’t know that I’m going to get real emotional about it. … It’s more a practical issue for me,” he said.
Brodeur believes Island-ers will like the Kennewick, which will hold 16 more vehicles than the 48-car Rhododendron, have more horsepower and will include two elevators and a galley.
“Once the folks see the new boat, ride on the boat and get used to it, they’ll fall in love with the new boat,” he said. “They’ll say the Rhody is cute but we need to move on.”
But as the Kennewick’s arrival draws near, Barbash said he can’t shake the feeling that the state could have done more to try to save the Rhododendron. Perhaps it would have been cheaper to reinforce the ship’s hull than to replace the whole thing, he said.
“How often in all of that service has she been hit in a way that breached her hull? ... If it’s never, then we need to look at that decision,” he said.
All options should have been explored and explained in public meetings, Barbash said. Instead, he said, WSF’s actions suggest a throwaway attitude that he believes is typical in today’s society.
“If it had been a more public process I would be more accepting of her demise,” he said. “A vessel with that kind of history — you don’t let her slip into the garbage can with little comment.”
Jack Barbash will collect personal memories and stories about the Rhododendron to be published in a future issue of The Beachcomber. Send stories to Barbash at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please don’t send files over 100 k.