Friday, July 14, 2017

When a boat breaks. By the numbers

By Marqise Allen
The Kittitas has been sailing around the Sound since 1980.

For Washington state’s active 22-ferry fleet, the average age of our boats is just shy of 30 years old. Thirteen ferries are over the age of 30. Of those, five are at least 50 years old.

Our maintenance crews do a masterful job of keeping all the vessels in shape to serve for up to six decades. However, just like a car, the older and more miles (the average ferry runs about 20 hours a day!), the more maintenance and sudden repairs it can require. Occasionally, a fix calls for a part that is no longer available and a replacement has to be custom built.

The Tacoma gets an engine inspection and maintenance. Vessels are pulled from service once a year for routine inspections, mandated by the United States Coast Guard, to help keep them safe.
Sometimes a ferry breakdown leaves a route with one less boat, which can cause wait times to inch past the three-hour mark as drivers wait their turn to board.

Cancelled trips make up a fraction of the approximate tens of thousands of trips made every year. Less than 1 percent! However, that doesn’t make it any less of an inconvenience when it’s your route that has canceled sailings due to a boat breakdown, a medical emergency or unforeseen events.
Twice in five years, we haul each vessel out of the water to check out the hull,
 propellers, rudders and underwater appendages.

Why not use a backup boat?

Many transit agencies have two backup vessels for every dozen in their fleet. Washington State Ferries fleet planners make one spare vessel available for relief use throughout the year, but unscheduled repairs can quickly consume this extra capacity. In fact, at the time of this blog post, our entire fleet is either in service or in the shop – there is no relief boat available to fill in.

It’d be akin to blowing out a tire on a car, replacing it with the lone donut and then blowing out another tire. In short, if another ferry breaks down this summer, we would be out of spares.
The “baby” Hiyu used to be WSF’s sole backup boat before it
 was replaced by the “younger” Hyak. The Hyak is 50 years old.

There are only so many ferries available, and it’s not as simple as moving Boat A to Boat B’s route. Some ferries can only sail certain routes due to their size and speed. The vehicle-carrying capacity of the ferry is also a factor. These constraints are weighed against the fact that it can take 12 to 24 hours to move a vessel off one route and onto another. Here’s why:

  • Due to safety rules that address the number of hours a crew can work, a new crew often must be brought in. 
  • Public notice: Notifications must be sent out to the route that’s losing a boat to let riders know that their route will have fewer sailings or less car capacity.
  • Boats can’t teleport: It can take a ferry three to six hours to sail from one route to another.

Why don’t you build more boats?
The Chimacum is the newest boat in the fleet and went into service on the Seattle/Bremerton route this year.

We are! It takes about four to six years to design and build a new ferry. Our newest boat cost $123 million. Buying used boats and throwing the iconic green and white paint on isn’t an option either. Our ferries are built to fit in our terminals and are designed to navigate in Puget Sound’s unique environment.

What can riders do?

Our crews work like mad to diagnose the issue and fix it as soon as possible. To stay in the know, ferry riders can plug in – follow our Twitter account and sign up for email updates to help make informed decisions. We suggest customers use our online tools such as Vessel Watch and Travel Alert Bulletins even if they take the ferry every day of the week, because things can and do change.

Last, but not least, the best way to avoid long lineups at the terminal – due to boat breakdowns or heavy traffic – is to leave the car at home and ride the bus, vanpool with friends or co-workers, take a bicycle out for a spin or walk on instead.

There’s rarely a wait for human-powered ferry riders! 


Chris Private said...

It should also make a difference whether the broken boat is on a route that has a drive-around option, as most do, or whether it's one of the routes (Vashon Island, San Juans) where there is no drive-around option, but if the boat doesn't go, people have no alternative.

WSDOT said...

Chris Private, all routes outside of the San Juans have a drive-around alternative or are within driving distance of another terminal, but that’s never what we want riders to have to do. When these breakdowns happen, it’s a delicate balancing act of trying to maintain some level of service to all routes throughout the system.

Unknown said...

Fully understand the issues including time to build a new ferry. Sad planning was not used to setup end of life replacement of ferry. There are a number of qualified ship yards and limiting ferry construction to only one builder limits faster and multiple construction schedules.

Chris said...

Although this article does a good job explaining some of the challenges of running an older ferry system, there is still a lot of blatant incompetence that can't be attributed to equipment alone. Right now, I'm in a 60 person car line on San Juan and have been here close to seven hours. We all had our reservations cancelled without explanation and then a few of us "lucky" ones who showed up in person were given paper tickets to come back for a 10pm ferry. However, an hour after 10, we are now told there is no estimate for when a ferry might arrive and even though they can be tracked via GPS, no one knows where the ferries are heading since "Anacortes won't pick up the phone". (Actual quote by multiple employers) This level of inept communication clearly falls into the category of dangerous. How can something as simple as the route of a ferry not be know . I would suggest that people avoid any use of this ferry system.

WSDOT said...

Hi Chris. I’m sorry about the wait yesterday. The Samish went out of service due to engine issues Sunday mid-afternoon, and we quickly transitioned to a four-boat schedule (rather than five) and had to cancel a few sailings. Because of that, we saw some really long waits, as you know. All of this happening on a summer Sunday afternoon (typically our busiest times of the week/year) exacerbated everything. However, not knowing what’s happening as you wait in a long line is frustrating. There was still some uncertainty in the moment as we were trying to assess how long the boat would be out, what was wrong, etc. If you don’t already, please be sure to follow us on Twitter @WSFerries or sign up for our travel alerts at This is where you can always find the most up to date travel information.

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