With the promise of passenger only service realized with the Express (later
Tyee) WSF ordered a pair of new boats to expand the service. The two,
named Skagit and Kalama were built for five million dollars in 1989 by
Halter Marine of New Orleans. The original design of these boats were
based on one used to ferry offshore crew to oil rigs in the Gulf of
Mexico. WSF altered the superstructure by adding another deck to
accommodate more passengers.
Arriving in the fall of 1989 the boats along with the Tyee were tied up.
There were no funds to run them. The state's newest members of the fleet
sat unused and in limbo.
The Loma Prieta Earthquake in San Francisco put the boats to work.
Loaned to the city while the bridges were down, the ferries proved their
worth--and it would turn out to be their finest moment.
Returning to Puget Sound, the ferries went into service...and soon after the
|At top, a photo from the State showing how the ferries looked in their all-white livery.
Center, the Skagit heading to the passenger only dock. Photo by the author.
Above, a photo by the author about 2000, showing the Kalama at the dock in Seattle.
Designed for the Gulf of Mexico, the boats rolled with the waves. The cabins
proved to be uncomfortable, freezing in the winter and sweltering in the
summer. The residents along Rich Passage began complaining about
erosion on their beaches due to the the large wake the ferries produced.
To appease property owners, WSF slowed the boats.
They were successful on the direct route from Vashon to down town Seattle,
where the open water presented no issues with the wake.
The pair proved to be unreliable and subject to frequent breakdowns.
When Washington State Ferries started a new passenger only program with
the Chinook and Snohomish, plans called for the Skagit and Kalama to be
retired. Instead, the ax fell on the passenger only program in 2005. The
Chinook and Snohomish were pulled off the Bremerton run and the full scale
dismantling of the passenger only fleet started, beginning with the auction
of the Tyee on eBay.
The Skagit and Kalama were assigned to carry on at Vashon. The
commuters on Vashon Island remained grateful for their ungainly boats. The
two provide the link from the Island directly to downtown Seattle, instead of
going to the dock at Fauntleroy in West Seattle as the auto boats do.
In the winter of 2006, the legislature directed the sale of the Chinook and
Snohomish. The remaining passenger only run between Vashon Island and
down town Seattle was to be discontinued by Washington State Ferries by
After the summer schedule of 2009 King County took over the
Vashon-Seattle run, using the 149 passenger catamaran Melissa Ann. King
County has plans to lease up to three 149-passenger vessels: one for
Vashon; one for the water taxi; and one for backup. Eventually the county will
buy its own fleet.
The Skagit and Kalama were declared surplus in the fall of 2009. The state
tried to sell them on eBay but were unsuccessful. The pair were finally sold
in 2011 and transported to Tanzania where they would provide service
between the mainland and Zanzibar.
On 18 July, 2012, after encountering heavy winds, the Skagit capsized off
the coast of Zanzibar. A resulting inquest by Tanzanian authorities found the
ferry had been dangerously overloaded, carrying an estimated 447
people--well over its capacity. The final death toll from the disaster is a
staggering 293 dead--although officially 81 are listed as dead and 212 as
A senseless tragic ending...
Few of us in the ferry community had a good feeling when the Skagit & Kalama were sold to Tanzania. The ferries worked successfully on Puget Sound due to
WSF's safety code and adherence to maintaining a strict passenger count for the two vessels.
Such rigid adherence and concern for safety was not an established practice in Tanzania, where not even a year earlier another over-loaded vessel had
Photographs can be found online of the Skagit in service in Tanzania with passengers crammed tightly together and lining the aisles and sitting on the floor.
Sadly, the Skagit disaster was a tragedy waiting to happen with such disregard for the safety of the passengers. At left is the horrifying result. The vessel
would sink a short time later.
Official Number: D949139 Call Sign: WAA6310 Length: 112' Beam: 25' Draft: 8' Horsepower: 2,840
Speed in Knots: 25 Max Passengers: 230
City Built: New Orleans Year Built/Re-built: 1989 Name Translation: From the Calama language: "pretty maiden."
Official Number: D949140 Call Sign: WAA6309 Length: 112' Draft: 8' Beam: 25' Horsepower: 3,840
Speed in Knots: 25 Max Passengers: 230
City Built: New Orleans Year Built/Re-built: 1989 Name Translation: The meaning is now unfortunately lost, but a county and river are named after this
Northwest Washington tribe.
Final Disposition: Skagit--Sank while dangerously overloaded on 18 July 2012 with an estimated death toll of 293; Kalama was removed from service
The newly arrived Skagit on Puget Sound. Author's collection.
|At left, the Skagit, taken by "Norbert" on Globotreks.com. shows the typical over-crowded conditions on the ferry before the sinking. He describes there being
no place to sit, every seat taken, every aisle blocked with sitting and standing people and their luggage/personal belongings. It is easy to see how a vessel
with a top limit of 250 had 447 crammed into it when conditions such as this were allowed to become standard practice, and why the disaster happened. At
right is the empty cabin of the Skagit, which gives an idea of just how crowded the vessel was at the time of the photo left. None of the seats are visible and
only the columns are distinguishable.