A power loss on the vessel Tacoma left the state’s busiest ferry corridor running with only one boat Tuesday afternoon, causing long delays for passengers crossing Puget Sound.
Two-hour waits were typical, said Capt. George Capacci, interim ferries director. But several passengers said they waited at the docks as long as three, even four hours. Some complained about a lack of information.
Washington State Ferries said ts 460-foot Jumbo Mark II-class boat — one of its three largest — would remain out-of-service Wednesday morning. The ferry service was shuffling other vessels to cover the Bainbridge route. Tuesday night, state ferries posted alerts saying there would be two boats on the Seattle/Bainbridge route Wednesday but just one on the Edmonds/Kingston.
The state lacked a boat to substitute for the Seattle-Bainbridge Island route for Tuesday evening’s commute. The M/V Wenatchee, the other high-capacity ferry that serves the route, is undergoing dry-dock repairs for an oil-valve problem in British Columbia and has been temporarily replaced by the slightly smaller Walla Walla.
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The Tacoma’s breakdown created an unprecedented loss of capacity, said Capacci.
“It’s new territory,” he said. “I really apologize to all our customers who have been inconvenienced.”
Ferry officials urged commuters to linger in Seattle a few hours until traffic cleared. Instead, “they stampeded down to the dock,” said WSF spokeswoman Marta Coursey.
The waters of Puget Sound were calm when the Tacoma, carrying 405 passengers, stalled and began to drift near the end of its 12:20 p.m. Seattle to Bainbridge crossing.
Capacci said Tuesday was only the second time in 40 years that a state ferry has had to drop anchor.
After the Tacoma lost power, the ferry Sealth interrupted its nearby Bremerton-to-Seattle trip to pull alongside the stranded vessel. Using a blue rope, the Sealth pulled one end of the Tacoma, to prevent it from drifting into shallow waters, said Tim Wilson, a visitor from North Carolina.
The retrieval operation enthralled many passengers, who tweeted photos with blue waters and Mount Rainier in the background.
“Everyone’s just kind of mesmerized by how well everything’s being done by the DOT (Department of Transportation),” Wilson said by phone from the ferry. “It’s very organized, and they know what they are doing.”
At 2:30 p.m., the Tacoma raised anchor. With a Foss tugboat starting to pull the bow, and another pushing the stern, the Tacoma coasted toward the passenger terminal at Winslow, arriving at 3 p.m. Departing passengers were given vouchers for a free ferry trip to compensate for the delay.
The M/V Tacoma, built in 1997, is among the newer vessels in Washington State Ferries’ aging fleet. Engineers were looking into what caused it to lose power, and as of Tuesday night, Capacci said, they hadn’t pinpointed it yet. Workers were able to re-energize one of two main electrical panels Tuesday night, he said.
With only one ferry serving the busy Seattle-Bainbridge route Tuesday evening, traffic and delays at the passenger docks cascaded almost instantly.
By 3:30 p.m., two boatloads of cars and passengers were waiting at the Bainbridge terminal, said state Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Poulsbo, who had just made the crossing. That grew to a three-boat delay, for the 30-minute run, and in Seattle, even walk-ons found themselves in long lines.
The pressure spread to the Bremerton-Seattle route, which canceled two evening sailings because the Sealth had lost time earlier.
The two tugboats arrived 30 to 40 minutes after the ferry staff called for aid, said Capacci, who was pleased they arrived that quickly. There were no reports of dangerous conditions.
“If there had been an emergency, the Coast Guard, their small boats would have been there, much quicker than that,” he said.
Capacci has told Rolfes he hopes the Wenatchee returns by Friday. Meanwhile, the Walla Walla, which the state says can hold 2,000 passengers, is limited to carrying 1,200, because of Coast Guard regulations based on how many people can be evacuated given the lifeboats and crew levels.
However, three passengers have messaged The Seattle Times to complain that only 600 people were allowed onto the Walla Walla — a factor in pushing the delays out to three hours.
And when it moved the Walla Walla to the Bainbridge run, Washington State Ferries had to the substitute the smaller Sealth for Bremerton-Seattle run, thereby reducing capacity on that route.
State Transportation Commission member Dan O’Neal of Shelton said the decision a few years ago by lawmakers to fund three new 144-car ferries is averting a worse crisis. The first of these, the Tokitae, entered service this summer. In addition, Capacci reactivated the retired Evergreen State this week for the Vashon Island triangle run, and has mentioned to commissioners his desire to invest in keeping that boat in working order — just in case the need arises.
“Getting enough ferries on line, for a ferry that goes down, is still a challenge,” O’Neal said.
Washington State Ferries, the nation’s largest system, carried 22.5 million passengers last year, of which 6.3 million traveled to or from Bainbridge Island.