A new ferry, already in need of repairs, is headed to Vashon

The 64-car Chetzemoka has served the Port Townsend-Coupeville route for a year, and will begin service on the Point Defiance-Tahlequah route next month. - Photo courtesy WSDOT
The 64-car Chetzemoka has served the Port Townsend-Coupeville route for a year, and will begin service on the Point Defiance-Tahlequah route next month.
— image credit: Photo courtesy WSDOT

In just a few weeks Vashon will get one of the state’s newest ferries, replacing the aging Rhododendron on the Point Defiance-Tahlequah route.

The boat was well received in Port Townsend, where it has served for a year on the Port Townsend-Coupeville run. It was a welcome replacement to the previous, 80-year-old Steel Electric boat and was even named by the community.

But already the 64-car Chetzemoka is garnering mixed reviews on the Island, where some are concerned about the repairs the boat has needed during its first year on the water and at least one ferry advocate questions its efficiency. Others, meanwhile, are simply sad to see the 64-year-old Rhody, which has served the south end for almost 20 years, go.

The Rhody, the oldest boat in state’s fleet, has been scheduled for replacement since 2009, as it no longer meets U.S. Coast Guard safety standards.

Along with having larger engines and space for about 16 more cars, the Chetzemoka will come to Vashon decorated inside with art depicting historical Port Townsend, a reminder that the ferry was not originally constructed to serve Vashon. The boat’s name, too, references a famous tribal chief from the Olympic Peninsula.

Tim Caldwell, chair of the Port Townsend/Jefferson County Ferry Advisory Committee, praised the Chetzemoka’s performance and said the Port Townsend community embraced the ferry as its own.

“We were all kind of attached to the artwork,” he said. “It has a lot of great hometown shots.”

The $80.5 million Chetzemoka (pronounced Chet-za-mocha) began service in late 2010 on the Port Townsend-Coupeville route as the first of three new 64-car ferries purchased by the state. It was joined on the route by the second boat in the class, the Salish. The final boat, the Kennewick, was to replace the Rhododendron.

However, the second two ferries were built with a different propulsion system than the Chetzemoka, and Washington State Ferries (WSF) decided to instead have the identical boats serve Port Townsend together during the peak season, sending the Chetzemoka to Vashon, said WSF spokesperson Laura Johnson in an email. The approach, she said, allows for “operational consistency, … as crews on that route often switch between vessels.”

Marta Coursey, another spokesperson for WSF, said the Chetzemoka was built with a different propulsion system because the state needed to get the boat on the water quickly. It went with a propulsion system just like the one on the Massachusetts ferry the Island Home — the boat all three boats were modeled after — saving valuable design time.

However, the propellers may be to blame for some displeasure surrounding the new ferry. Rumors have circulated among south-end commuters that the new boat is already having mechanical problems; it has even earned a crude nickname.

Indeed, the Chetzemoka, which has been dry-docked in Eagle Harbor since the Port Townsend route went to one-boat service in October, is already in need of a major repair. Hairline cracks were discovered in its propellers last month during scheduled maintenance. Johnson said the propellers were repaired and new ones are currently being fabricated. The new propellers will cost about $140,000, and the state has filed a claim against the boat’s builder, Vigor Industrial.

A vibration issue with the propulsion system delayed the Chetzemoka’s inaugural sailing last year, and the ferry was also dry-docked for a few days in August to replace a leaky keel cooler, a part that is located in the hull and prevents systems from overheating.

Johnson said that despite the repairs, WSF has been pleased with how the Chetzemoka served Port Townsend. She said the challenging route puts wear and tear on any vessel, and the Chetzemoka has had only nine mechanical-related cancellations in more than 6,000 trips.

“Considering the fact that the Kwa-di Tabil class vessels are the first ferries to be built in more than 12 years, and that they were immediately placed into service on one of the most challenging routes in the ferry system, their performance has been and continues to be remarkable,” she said.

Greg Beardsley, chair of Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee, is wary of the Chetzemoka’s move to Vashon. He agrees it makes sense to have identical ferries on the Port Townsend run but also believes the Chetzemoka’s propulsion system makes it more difficult to navigate than the Salish or Kennewick.

Indeed, the former captain of the Chetzemoka, Curt Larson, told the Port Townsend Leader in October that because of its different propulsion system the Chetzemoka doesn’t stop as well as the other two boats in its class.

Another worker on the Chetzemoka said the boat is more susceptible to winds because it lacks the large holes in the deck that other ferries have. Beardsley believes the ferry may have trouble on the south end of Vashon, where winds and currents can be strong during the winter months. 

“It’s a very big, tall vessel that has lots of windage. … It’s not like the Rhody, which is very low-profile,” Beardsley said.

Johnson, with WSF, believes the boat will perform fine and said it was even tested at Tahlequah in fall of 2010. “The currents there are similar to those in Coupeville and the vessel performed well,” she said

Beardsley also criticized the design of all three 64-car boats, which he says are not cost efficient — troubling, he noted, in light of the ferry system’s financial difficulties.

According to WSF statistics, the 64-car Chetzemoka burns 75 gallons of fuel per hour, while the 48-car Rhododendron burns 30 gallons per hour. It also requires a crew of seven workers compared with the Rhody’s crew of six.

Coursey, with WSF, said it’s impossible to compare operating costs between the Chetzemoka and Rhododendron because they have served two different routes and are from different classes of vessels.

State Sen. Sharon Nelson, who lives on Maury and often commutes off the south end, said she hadn’t heard anything about the fuel efficiency or crew size of the Chetzemoka but believes it is much needed at Tahlequah and is pleased Vashon is poised to receive a nearly brand-new boat.

“We’ve got a year-old boat to replace a 60-year-old vessel, an aged vessel,” she said.

When asked whether she was concerned with the Chetzemoka’s design or recent repairs, Nelson said she had heard some qualms from constituents, but hasn’t found data to back their complaints. “My understanding is she’s performed very well up there,” she said.

Bob Sargent, an Islander who commutes on the Point Defiance-Tahlequah route, said he too has heard rumors about the new boat, but like many, he doesn’t know what’s true and what isn’t.

“People are talking, and people are wary,” he said. “On the other hand, I’ve heard from some people that are concerned about the safety of the Rhody in the long run.”

Sargent added that he and others are sad to see the Rhododendron, which he called “a treasure,” go. Many riders and crew have grown to love the boat, praising its upper-deck layout, polished wood benches and brass railings. There has even been talk of a goodbye party for the vessel.

“Both the public and the crew really adore that boat,” Sargent said. “It will be a sad day when it goes away.”


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