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A lapse in communication within Washington State Ferries about available boat capacity lengthened passenger delays Tuesday after the breakdown of the M/V Tacoma near Bainbridge Island.

Walla Walla, which continued as the sole vessel on the state’s busiest crossing, was given permission from the Coast Guard to carry 1,200 people. Yet, the Walla Walla carried only 600 through the afternoon and evening, according to interim ferries director Capt. George Capacci and several frustrated passengers, who say they waited in line three hours or longer.

Asked why the crew didn’t load 1,200 people, Capacci said Wednesday: “Somehow that information didn’t get communicated to the captain of the Walla Walla fast enough, soon enough, and to the dispatch.” He said he didn’t have further details.

It was the latest struggle facing the nation’s largest and arguably safest ferry network, serving 23 million passengers a year.

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Shortages of trained crew have led to dozens of missed trips in the last couple years, when absent workers couldn’t be replaced quickly. The recently built ferries Chetzemoka, Kennewick and Salish listed sideways due to a design quirk, until the state decided later to ballast them to level. A ferry in the San Juans hit a sailboat last year when a mate turned the rudder in the wrong direction, a follow-up investigation found. Various snafus have been blamed on chronic funding shortages, lapses in strategy, or both.

And former director David Moseley hasn’t been replaced since his April 15 retirement — Capacci withdrew while Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson passed over the other finalist, former Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg. A second national recruitment will be conducted, with applications due Aug. 31, said Lars Erickson, spokesman for Peterson.

On the other hand, the organization is finally making progress to replace its aging fleet, and recovers two-thirds of its operating expenses through fares.

Indeed, the Tacoma stall, caused by a loss of power, is only the second time in 40 years a ferry has needed to drop anchor, said Capacci.

Capt. Ty Anderson drew praise from passengers aboard the Tacoma for safely coping with the Tacoma’s power loss, and within minutes the M/V Sealth detoured from its Bremerton-Seattle run to assist. A pair of tugboats nudged the Tacoma to the nearby Winslow terminal.

“By all accounts, they did well,” said Capt. John Dwyer, Coast Guard chief of marine inspection in Seattle.

Ironically, people aboard the Tacoma had a happier day than customers who crossed afterward on other boats.

Judy Kennedy of Poulsbo, in Seattle for a friend’s medical appointment, said she waited three hours at Colman Dock to walk aboard the Walla Walla, and noted that people were avoiding a trip to the restroom for fear of losing their place in line.

“It was very upsetting for people who got on the boats, to see the boats were only half full,” said Kennedy, who boarded finally at 6:55 p.m.

“The strict crew members in the terminal did the best they could to keep order and except for a very few line cutters, most people were being very good sports about the terrible conditions — standing only, no bathroom accessibility, no water, no free vouchers given to any of us, and very poor communication,” she said in an email. “The ferry system needs to be better prepared for such emergencies and needs to communicate with the passengers. We were literally held back by yellow tape into holding areas.”

The capacities are based on longstanding Coast Guard and ferry-system policies.

Most ferries have enough life rafts to hold everyone in an emergency, but the largest ferries don’t. There are enough for 600 people.

So under “alternate compliance” rules since 2002, the ferry system can add the capacity of its partner boat on a two-boat route. This technique has been shown to be safe through numerous drills, Dwyer said.

Dwyer happened to be in the Washington State Ferries (WSF) operations center in Belltown when the Tacoma stalled.

He gave permission for the Walla Walla (with deck space for 2,000 people, WSF says) to carry 1,200 people, based on its 600 life-raft seats, and that the nearby Sealth could rescue 600 more people. Dwyer said Wednesday he doesn’t know why the Walla Walla boarded only 600.

Besides that, the Coast Guard itself could speed a handful of 25- and 45-foot boats to a distressed ferry within minutes, he said, though the Tacoma stall didn’t endanger anyone.

Capacci said he is mostly satisfied with how the agency performed.

“I get it. I apologize to our employees who had to put up with that huge crowd, and to the passengers who were inconvenienced,” he said.

This was the first time the ferry system has operated without two giant Jumbo Mark II boats — the Wenatchee is being repaired in British Columbia until late Thursday night, Capacci said.

The ferry service also has canceled international service Thursday and Friday on the run between Anacortes and Sidney, British Columbia.

Engineers are still trying to learn what’s ailing the 17-year-old Tacoma, expected to be idle for several days.

The shortage might have been worse, had Capacci not brought the M/V Evergreen State out of retirement several days ago.

The new Tokitae, serving Mukilteo-Clinton, was idle for an hour Wednesday. The crew perceived a propulsion problem, but a brief inspection found the system working OK, the agency said.

So the number of idle vessels stands at four, including the Yakima, which is being overhauled, and the Kittitas, which is being painted.

To add lifeboats to the Jumbo ferries might make the network more resilient, but would be costly, too. Asked about this, Capacci said it’s one more issue to think about, after this week’s run of misfortune.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or On Twitter @mikelindblom

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