All three Evergreen State Class ferries had been in service for several years when Washington State Ferries did a comprehensive assessment of their fleet in
1962. The news was not good. Aside from the Evergreens, the Rhody and Olympic, and the Steel Electric Class which had just been recently renovated, the
rest of the fleet was not in good shape. All the wooden vessels (save for the Vashon and Crosline which had recently had extensive renewals) were in need
wide-ranging repairs. The Kalakala was in poor condition and the Chippewa was no longer a viable vessel.
The system needed new ferries, but it would be a some years before that was possible. The older boats were patched up as best as possible, including
extensive work to the Kalakala, but the Chippewa and Kitsap would have to go.
Meanwhile, W.C. Nickum and Sons, designers of the Evergreens, were commissioned to design a new class of ferries. Nickum's design incorporated some of
the best features of some of the older vessels--the two level passenger deck of the Kalakala, for example,and the narrow hull of the Vashon that would make
the new boats practically wakeless. Unlike the older boats, the new class would be fast--traveling at 20 knots--and able to carry an 160 cars and an
astounding 2,500 passengers.
National Steel and Shipbuilding of San Diego was awarded the contract to build the four vessels. Construction on the first ferry, the Hyak, began in 1966.
Arriving in the summer of 1967, the Hyak was placed on the Seattle-Bremerton route, enabling the retirement of the Kalakala and the Willapa. Both vessels
were single enders and their large Busch-Sulzer diesel engines consumed a great deal of fuel, even by 1967 standards. The Hyak's unlikely running mate
until the Yakima would arrive would be the Enetai.
The Kaleetan entered service next, and was sent to the Seattle-Winslow route, allowing the Illahee to be cut loose for the Kingston run. The Yakima arrived a
short while later, sending the Enetai into retirement. Finally, delayed by a strike, the Elwha appeared at Winslow in 1968.
The Yakima and Hyak would stay at Bremerton for 13 years. The downturn in traffic on the run would see them replaced by the smaller Issaquahs for over a
decade. With the arrival of the Jumbo class, the Elwha and Kaleetan were reassigned. The Kaleetan went to the San Juan Islands, a route she would call
home for the next 25 years, and the Elwha would fill in as needed, appearing at Kingston and Bremerton until finding a more permanent home in the San Juan
Islands in the early 1980's.
Unfortunately it was in the Islands that the Elwha would develop an unsavory reputation. Undoubtedly the most famous incident for the vessel happened in
1983 when her captain "discovered" an uncharted rock in Grindstone Harbor while showing a female passenger what her home looked like from the water.
While there were some soap opera like qualities to the accident, it was far from comic. The Elwha began taking on water due to a tear in her hull and had to
be pumped out at the Orcas Dock.
Soon thereafter the woman in question began being referred to as "the Siren of the San Juans" and local bars began selling a drink called "Elwha on the
Rocks." A local band in Friday Harbor cut a 45 with a song of the same title.
Even though the Hyak made a bit of a splash after going aground off Shannon Point outside the Anacortes ferry dock a few years later, the Elwha garnered
the lion's share of attention. While awaiting refurbishment, she broke loose of her moorings in a violent storm and was heavily damaged when high winds
bashed her repeatedly into the pier. Later, she smashed into the Anacortes dock, was taken on an unauthorized route by one captain that resulted in
grounding and more hull damage. In the most recent (but now over ten year old) incident, she lost power and demolished the Orcas Island dock.
The class was scheduled for major upgrading in the 1990's. The Elwha started the program, but the delays and extra expense in repairing the storm damage
resulted in her cabin getting the short shrift. The Kaleetan and Yakima were completely refurbished, leaving no trace of their plain and somewhat austere
interiors. The Hyak, a victim of funding cuts, was not upgraded at all. She had received the rebuilt engines from the Spokane and Walla Walla, but other than
a complete cleaning and some new tile and paint, looks nearly exactly as she did in 1967. The only major addition to her cabin has been an elevator.
Top of the page: the Hyak arrives on Puget Sound for the first time, with her paint line too high and her false bow intact. Courtesy of NASSCO. Left, the Kaleetan on stormy
seas in 1968. Middle, the Yakima oat Colman Dock, August of 1969. Right, the Elwha, from a harbor tours boat, August, 1969. Author's collection.