Back in November 2007, then Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond unceremoniously yanked the Steel Electrics for "safety concerns," even though the
Coast Guard had certified the boats. It was the last time the boats would ever see service.
Faced now with an artificially created crisis, WSDOT began the plans for getting new boats put on the run. As the idea of larger boats was off the
table--neither Whidbey Island or Port Townsend wanted larger boats and the expense of relocating the ferry landing from Keystone Harbor to accommodate
an Issaquah Class ferry grew out of practicality, it was decided to build boats that could use the existing terminal.
Rather than do the prudent thing, which would have been to patch up the Quinault, on which over half the work had been done on anyway, the WSDOT
was loaned the Pierce County ferry Steilacoom II, a "K Class" ferry that was not certified for the run. The Coast Guard approved the boat only after additional
safety equipment was installed and the keelless ferry went on the run.
It was announced shortly after the Steilacoom II that the state would be building several of those boats to take over the run. It became readily apparent a
short time late that for the long term the Steilacoom II would not be an ideal solution. The ferry rolled and pitched so much even on calm seas that it quickly
earned the nickname "Bob" by crews. Moderate seas caused a higher rate of cancellations than on the 80 year old ferries they had replaced.
The final straw was the bid to build a clone of the Steilacoom II came in way over budget. WSF had already dispatched a team to check out the Island Home
working at Martha's Vineyard which had the draft requirements for Keystone but was a much sturdier ferry. After the team came back with their impressions,
the idea of building a Steilacoom II clone was dropped and the contract for building three Island Home style ferries (they were lengthened and modified to
include WSF's trademark pickle forks and in addition the bow doors on the Island Home were removed from the design).
Built by Todd (now Vigor) Shipyard, the first ferry was built on a tight 18 month schedule to be in service by the summer of 2010. The second (Salish) on
arrived in the spring of 2011, the last ( Kennewick) in 2012.
The tight schedule would make some changes to the first of the class which was destined to be named Chetzemoka. She would not receive the variable
pitch propellers like her sisters. Meanwhile, the name for the class was decided upon by competition. The winning name name Kwa-di Tabil (kwah DEE
tah-bale) meaning "little boat" in the Quileute language came from the fourth-grade class at Port Townsend's Blue Heron Middle School.
At the urging of the Port Townsend Historical Society, the first boat was named Chetzemoka to honor Chief Chetzemoka of the S'Klallam tribe. In addition, it
follows the tradition of renaming new vessels after historic vessels on Puget Sound--in this instance the Wood Electric ferry Chetzemoka built in 1927.
The rush to alter the existing design rather than come up with a fresh set of plans for the routes resulted in vessels with many short-comings--including a very
noticeable and embarrassing list. The narrow car decks are difficult to load, (the narrowest in the fleet since the Kalakala was retired) and the list made
loading worse. So awkward are the car decks that while built with the idea of running the inter-island route in the San Juans, the vessels have only been tired
twice. Both times were failures, as loading for multi-destination stops proved nearly impossible as there was no room to turn the cars on the narrow deck.
They have not returned to the islands since. The complex passenger cabin layout necessitated more signs and additional crew to handle crowd control in the
event of an emergency.
After months of denying it was a problem, and claiming that the list was intentional, the DOT was ordered to add ballast to the ferries to correct the list. The
results have been dramatic, from increasing fuel economy to reducing vibrations. The Salish and the Kennewick have both had the list fixed, with the
Chetzemoka having the correction done in the winter of 2014.
|The Chetzemoka arriving at Point Defiance. Photo courtesy of Brandon Swan.