Ferry tale

February 23, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

Vessel named for Issaquah overcomes early troubles to become fleet workhorse

Night descended hours earlier, when the weak, winter sun slunk behind the Olympic Mountains. Stragglers wait along Fauntleroy Cove; the afternoon rush ended long ago. The last commuters sit, impatient and weary, in vehicles, sealed behind steel and safety glass. Lines form and vehicles — mud-caked Subaru wagons, worn SUVs with stickers on the rear windows — inch into position. Destination: Vashon Island.

The ferry glides into view across Puget Sound. The hull carries the same name as a place 20 miles east: Issaquah.

The vessel matters little to the travelers; the Klahowya or the Tillikum could carry them home just the same.

Come daylight, the boxy Issaquah looks as unglamorous as a mail truck, with the same work ethic as a letter carrier — neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom keeps the ferry idle.

Darkness softens the hard edges, and the Issaquah looks handsome, even majestic. Light spills from the oblong windows and the open vehicle deck. Reflections glimmer across the dark water.

As the ferry approaches the West Seattle terminal, propellers churn the inky water into foam, like the frothy head on a glass of pilsner. The vessel nudges the dock, the ramp lowers and attendants in fluorescent gear direct vehicles from the maw. Not 20 minutes later, more cars, trucks and SUVs fill the hold.

The placid efficiency contrasts with the years in the Carter era when the Issaquah entered service and headlines blared problems aboard — and caused by — the ferry.

The ferry, and the other Issaquah-class vessels under construction at a Seattle shipyard in the late ’70s, took a circuitous route from lemon to modern-day workhorse in the state fleet. Nowadays, the ferry Issaquah plies Puget Sound on regular runs from the Fauntleroy Terminal to Vashon Island and Southworth on the Kitsap Peninsula.

Lawmakers and the builders hurled sharp words at the other in the early days. The rhetoric ratcheted higher as Washington State Ferries yanked the vessels from service, inspected and repaired the ferries, only to remove the vessels from service again.

Reminders from the contentious early years remain: Crewmembers still refer to the vessels as “citrus class” ferries, a nod to the era when editorial cartoons and T-shirts derided the Issaquah as a proverbial lemon. The vessel debuted with unforeseen mechanical problems, spats between builders and officials, and troublesome safety questions.

“My mother would call me up and say, ‘Do you know what you’re doing down there?’” ships superintendent and welding supervisor Ralph Hansen recalled.

He worked at the Marine Power & Equipment shipyard, where the Issaquah class vessels took shape.

Before the maelstrom — accidents, lawsuits, angry letters to the editor — dignitaries set aside the unease to christen the Issaquah. Townspeople gathered at the Seattle shipyard to watch the ferry ease into the Duwamish River. Historian Harriet Fish walloped a bottle of champagne against the hull Dec. 29, 1979.

After the ceremony concluded, the boldface names and Issaquah residents left, and yard workers raised the vessel from the water for some last-minute construction.

Name game, blame game

Not long ago, a class of Port Townsend fourth-graders beat students in Chimacum and Whidbey Island to pick the name for the newest state ferry class: Kwa-di Tabil, or “little boat” in the Quileute language.

A celebration followed the announcement from the state Department of Transportation. Next came congratulations from Gov. Chris Gregoire. A commemorative plaque — delivered by the governor — should arrive within weeks.

The announcement recalled a push more than 30 years ago to name a vessel after Issaquah. The effort resulted in a ferry class named with words picked from native tongues: Issaquah, Kittitas, Kitsap, Cathlamet, Chelan, Sealth.

But the grade-school contest — tied to lessons about Pacific Northwest American Indians and Puget Sound maritime history — lacked the ironclad determination and political maneuvering behind the Issaquah effort.

Fish, then the Issaquah historian, spearheaded the endeavor to name a vessel in a planned ferry class for the Eastside city, and shepherded the necessary legislation through Olympia.

A Lake Washington ferry from the early 1900s also carried the name Issaquah, and townspeople conceived the drive to name a new ferry as part civic pride, part tribute to the bygone vessel.

Supporters marshaled students to collect innumerable signatures scrawled on petitions, City Council members to endorse the effort and residents to sit through legislative committee meetings. For the effort to succeed, city residents had to convince lawmakers to name a ferry for Issaquah.

The blitz worked: A state transportation bureaucrat told a Senate committee how he had never seen “such a tremendous outpouring of support” for a ferry name.

Legislators agreed, and designated the first vessel in a soon-to-be-launched ferry class as the Issaquah.

But the rollout of the new class proved nettlesome. Designers included advances — like computer technology and variable-pitch propellers built for maneuverability — in the new ferries. Although engineers hailed the systems as innovative, delays and public squabbles between the shipyard and state officials shoved the superlatives aside.

Chuck Fowler served as the state Department of Transportation public affairs administrator in the ’70s. He handled a barrage of questions from reporters asking about the troubles with the Issaquah class.

“I think that the major problem was the use of variable-pitch propellers, the first application of this new technology on state ferries,” he recalled. “There were some early ferry-meets-dock collisions, but they were explained as crews becoming familiar with the new technology and equipment.”

The woes and high-profile missteps drew unwelcome attention to the largest ferry system in the United States. A cruise around Elliott Bay for state dignitaries ended after a gasket blew and the Issaquah limped into port alongside a tug. Accidents and computer glitches plagued the Issaquah-class vessels after the ferries entered service in the early ’80s. The new ferries rammed docks and, another time, a vessel pulled away from a pier, dropping a — thankfully — unoccupied car into Puget Sound.

People called the new ferries unsafe. T-shirts emblazoned with “I Survived the Issaquah” appeared. The ringer tees depicted cartoon cars and passengers tumbling into the water, while seagulls recoiled from the scene.

Paul Zankich often faced a firing line from passengers and the news media back then. He designed the ferries, and served as chief engineer of the Marine Power & Equipment shipyard.

“People said I should get combat pay for what I was doing,” Zankich said.

Former shipyard workers said some of the snags dissipated as ferry crews acclimated to the new systems. Tweaks ordered by DOT officials helped remedy problems, too.

“Once you’re sitting at the helm and the controls are in your hand, that’s where the buck stops,” Hansen said.

A rising tide

Midmorning sunshine reveals the Issaquah as a leviathan — brawny and utilitarian, all noise and steel. The deck plates jostle beneath cars, trucks and Metro Transit buses, rumbling aboard in a careful choreography. Day-Glo-orange life rings and Zodiac lifeboats punctuate the hunter-green-and-white color scheme.

Nowadays, the Issaquah and its five sister vessels serve as workhorses in the state ferry fleet. Combined, the ferries haul about 18,500 passengers per day. The flagship Issaquah carries 2,751 people each day on trips from West Seattle to Vashon Island to Southworth and back again.

Built to carry 1,200 passengers, about 130 vehicles and almost as long as a football field, the Issaquah feels like a lonely place on midday crossings. The cavernous passenger deck sits almost empty. Below, on the vehicle deck, most of the passengers wait in cars, idle and still seat-belted in.

Aboard the Issaquah, Boatswain Greg Kruse keeps order on the vehicle deck, where loadings and unloadings unfold in a well-timed blur.

“Safety is our biggest concern,” he said during a mid-January crossing.

The former charter boat captain wakes on workdays at 3:17 a.m. and leaves home in Ballard to reach the Fauntleroy Terminal by 4:25 a.m. On some days, the job rewards Kruse with postcard-perfect vistas: Mount Rainier to the south, the downtown Seattle skyline to the northeast, the Olympic Mountains to the west.

The passengers aboard include former Issaquah Councilman David Kappler, a frequent rider on the ferry. He boarded the vessel on a sun-splashed January day for the crossing to Vashon Island, where he has a house.

Kappler left his pickup on the vehicle deck, and then ambled upstairs to the passenger area. The longtime councilman eyed grainy reproductions of historic photographs depicting turn-of-the-20th-century Issaquah. Besides the photos, the ferry contains few connections to its namesake city.

Kappler, however, noted similarities between eco-savvy Issaquah and conservation-minded Vashon Island, and described the rural island as a locale where “people are proud to say the place is weird.”

Despite dozens of trips to the island, he has never encountered notable, part-time residents Al Rossellini and Booth Gardner — former governors who spend summers there.

Capt. David Wilson joined the state ferry service about the same time the Issaquah-class vessels entered service. On most days, he guides the Issaquah from pilothouses at each end of the ferry.

“If you cut the ferry in half, you’d be hard-pressed to know which end is which,” Wilson said.

The vessel sails Puget Sound at about 17 knots, or 20 mph. Upgrades, like radar and global-positioning technology, have alleviated some of the navigation concerns about fog and bad weather.

“It’s not a real stressful situation like it was in the old days,” Wilson said.

The ferry’s design — so maligned when the Issaquah-class vessels entered service — also withstood the wear and tear of the decades. The state even plans to build new 144-vehicle ferries based on the Issaquah-class design. The new ferries could enter service as early as 2014, state budgets permitting.

Consider the decision as belated vindication for Zankich, the designer of the Issaquah class and West Seattle resident who lives not far from Fauntleroy Cove. On a clear day, he can look outside and watch the Issaquah sail from the mainland to Vashon Island with workmanlike efficiency.

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