The captain of the Cathlamet ferry, which veered off course near West Seattle on Thursday and slammed into some pilings, resigned on Monday.
The crash did not result in any injuries or hazardous material spills.
Washington State Ferries spokesperson Ian Sterling confirmed the captain’s resignation Monday, and that the ferryboat was moving much faster than it should have been at that point in the journey. He said the captain, whose name has not been released, was tested for drugs and alcohol and the results were negative. It remained unclear what was happening on the captain’s deck that caused the crash. Sterling also could not rule out mechanical error.
“It truly is a mystery,” Sterling said. “Something went badly wrong there.”
The Cathlamet left Vashon Island, heading east toward the Fauntleroy dock in West Seattle, Thursday morning around 7:55 a.m. Its approach was normal for most of the journey, according to Marine Tracker, a website that tracks vessels’ positions. But as it approached the dock, the ferry lurched south. It went so far off course that the side of the ship facing north hit the southern group of pilings, known as a dolphin.
The collision crumpled one corner of the boat, causing the collapse of the outside portion of the passenger deck known as the picklefork. Several cars were damaged in the collision, with one being trapped by metal, where it remains, said Sterling.
Initial estimates of the cost of repairs to the Cathlamet, a 1980s boat that came online as part of the Issaquah class of ferries, is between $5 million and $7 million. That number could easily rise as the investigation continues, said Sterling.
Patty Rubstello, assistant secretary of Washington State Ferries, informed staff of the resignation in a message Monday afternoon.
“Safety continues to be our number one priority for both employees and customers, and I’m thankful that in the history of WSF there has never been a fatality due to a collision,” she wrote.
Ferry crew members were notified of the resignation by a notice posted in the employee areas of boats and terminals.
The Coast Guard is leading the federal investigation, along with the National Transportation Safety Board, while WSF runs its own internal investigation. A spokesperson for the Coast Guard said the investigation is in its preliminary stages and did not offer any additional details on the cause of the incident.
“I can tell you they haven’t interviewed my guys yet,” said Dan Twohig, regional representative for the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, whose members aboard the Cathlamet include a mate as well as the captain, whom he declined to name Monday.
“This is a bad accident and nobody got hurt,” Twohig said. “That’s what’s important.”
State lawmakers learned of the resignation in an email blast shortly after 4 p.m. Monday.
It’s another setback for state ferries because of the time and rigor needed to train navigators, when labor is already short, said state Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island.
“It’s going to be hard to replace a retiring captain,” she said. As of last fall, the average age of senior masters is 62, and captains, 57.
Promotion from deckhand to captain can take six to 10 years, including classroom training, extra hours alongside experienced navigators, experience as a mate and written exams on Puget Sound topography and sea conditions.
The state ferry system is undertaking a $1 million campaign to recruit more mates and pilots this year.
State Sen. Joe Nguyen, a Democrat whose district includes West Seattle and Vashon Island, said he and his district partner, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, plan to hold a town hall on the incident.
“This is a lifeline for so many members of our community,” he said.
WSF brought in the Kitsap on Friday to replace the damaged Cathlamet.
The state ferry system is the largest in the U.S. Its more than 70-year history has been a safe one, with relatively few crashes for the number of passages.
But the last two years have been challenging. Crew shortages due to retirements, COVID infections and vaccine-related resignations, have hobbled its ability to provide normal service. Many routes are operating on reduced schedules, including the sailings between Fauntleroy, Vashon Island and Southworth.
Rep. Dave Paul, D-Oak Harbor, said he’s grateful there were no injuries, but that the damaged Cathlamet will be sidelined for months, and “we don’t have a lot of backup ships right now.”
The fleet itself is aging and in need of upgrades. Of WSF’s 21 boats, just 17 are available. Two are always held out for repairs and maintenance and along with the Cathlamet, the Tacoma is damaged. But for now, said Sterling, the issue of crew shortages supersedes the vessel shortages, meaning the ferry system couldn’t run a full schedule even if it had the boats.
After years of underinvestment, the Legislature this year approved $350 million for more training and staffing in a 16-year transportation plan, along with $860 million for four new vessels, $160 million for more maintenance and $193 million to begin converting docks and boats to all-electric power.
“If this was not a mechanical failure, you have to look at: Is the training we’re providing for our ferry system strong enough?” said Paul.