A state ferry sustained heavy damage after it veered far off course on a Thursday morning run from Vashon Island and crashed into pilings near the Fauntleroy dock in West Seattle.

No injuries were reported.

A section atop one side of the ferry Cathlamet was crumpled. At least one car was pinned inside the ferry by bent metal. Ferry repairs are likely to take several months.

Ferries occasionally hit and damage pilings at the terminals, but impacts that dent a boat are rare. 

Investigators are looking at what caused the boat to be off course and to crash. Crew members were tested for drugs and alcohol, as is standard, and at least some gave preliminary statements, said Washington State Ferries spokesperson Ian Sterling.

Sterling couldn’t confirm Thursday whether crew made a radio call to workers on the dock, or a public-address call to passengers during the approach Thursday morning. WSF didn’t provide details about the boat speed, or why it was off course. Sterling said it appears the vessel approached faster than normal, as witnesses described.

The Cathlamet was so far off course Thursday morning that its left — or north — side struck a bundle of pilings south of the dock around 8 a.m.

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After impact, the ferry — carrying more than 50 passengers — bounced and drifted south toward shore, said Kevin Callan, who lives along the beach. The Cathlamet wound up near an anchored catamaran in the cove there, until the crew managed to backtrack and maneuver it to the dock, video by Callan shows.

“If the tide had been lower, it would have run aground,” he said. “It was churning up sand, so you know it almost reached the beach.”

Ferries chief Patty Rubstello toured the Cathlamet later Thursday, viewing the smashed corner and outdoor passengers’ viewpoint from behind yellow tape.

“I have had a chance to get on the vessel and look at the damage, and it’s very significant. It’s a miracle that nobody was injured,” she said. She described the staff as shaken up, but responding professionally to bring the boat safely to its dock.

To help stranded commuters as Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal remained closed for hours, the King County Water Taxi to Vashon Island added a 3:30 p.m. run. Ferry service resumed for the afternoon commute, when the Kitsap arrived at Fauntleroy around 3:20 p.m. to replace the damaged Cathlamet.

Future ferry service

It’s not clear whether Thursday’s mishap will reduce ferry capacity elsewhere in Puget Sound, Sterling said. An ongoing personnel shortage has left the ferry system without enough crew to staff as many sailings as needed.

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Since last fall, several routes have been on “alternate schedules,” meaning a single vessel operates instead of two, because of the chronic shortage of mariners, which has been aggravated by COVID-19 outbreaks and workers who chose to leave WSF rather than adhere to vaccine mandates.

WSF has begun the process of restoring normal service as it works to hire more crew members. But the Fauntleroy, Vashon, Southworth is considered a lower priority than four other routes, meaning it’s often only running two boats when it would normally have three.

Investigations ahead

The impact demolished a narrow steel deck, known as the picklefork, that extends over the car deck, and where passengers like to stand and feel the breeze in their faces. At some terminals, walk-on customers use that deck to exit the boat into an elevated walkway, especially arriving from Bainbridge to Seattle.

Sterling said it was fortunate there weren’t many walk-ons coming from Vashon. In addition, deckhands and sometimes the public stand at the bow of the car deck, where a sudden jolt might knock them forward. “If it were coming from Bainbridge, we might have a different story,” Sterling speculated.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Steve Strohmaier said officers from the Puget Sound sector deployed to the scene shortly after they were notified of the crash around 8:20 a.m.

Besides the state ferries’ internal investigation, the Coast Guard will lead a federal inquiry with aid from the National Transportation Safety Board, said Amy Scarton, deputy Washington state transportation secretary. Scarton described the WSF safety record as world-leading and “impeccable” since the agency’s startup in 1951.

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“In the history of state ferries we have not had a fatality aboard one of our vessels, so we will take this seriously and we will learn from it,” she said.

On-boat video is probably available to aid the investigation, Sterling said.

As of Thursday afternoon, there was no “smoking gun” and no obvious sign of a mechanical failure, he said.

West Seattle resident Jack Walsh said he heard the crash around 8 a.m., describing it as a “combination of a small explosion and screeching” that lasted about five seconds.

Anne Higuera was on the boat, with her car parked on the upper deck, about four vehicles back from the front. As the ferry pulled into the Fauntleroy dock, she didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Then she heard an “enormous noise” in front of her that kept getting worse.

“There was a lot of concrete dust,” she said. When she looked up, she saw the side of the boat had been crushed and several cars in front of her were heavily damaged. One was spilling fluid.

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The crew went around to check on passengers, asking if they were OK. The cars offloaded into Fauntleroy by reversing off the boat. By 9 a.m., the last vehicles had exited.

Vashon resident Oskar Weiss, 17, was commuting to work on the ferry when “out of nowhere there was just a huge boom,” he said. His entire car shook and felt like it slid on the car deck’s surface. “I thought that we were going to go on the shore because it seemed like we weren’t slowing down.”

Ferries leaving Fauntleroy travel to Vashon Island and Southworth, near Port Orchard on the Kitsap Peninsula. Thursday morning’s 7:55 a.m. sailing of the Cathlamet left from Vashon Island, heading east. It’s a 328-foot boat built in 1981 and rebuilt in 1993. It can hold 124 cars and up to 1,200 passengers.

At the Southworth dock, word of the crash got out quickly, according to terminal supervisor Wayne McFarland, and people who needed to get to Seattle from Kitsap either skipped the ferry lines completely or turned around, got their refunds and left.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said of the mangled ferry and the bent pilings.

Washington ferries do periodically damage offshore pilings, which to some extent are meant to be sacrificial, to absorb energy and be ruined on severe impact. Certain structures help guide vessels into place, and are designed for everyday minor bumps.

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This April, the ferry Kaleetan landed hard at Colman Dock in downtown Seattle, causing some damage but no injuries. And last December, the ferry Yakima destroyed a wide floating structure, known as a dolphin, on approach to the Lopez Island dock, during rough waters, but service continued there.

In 1998, the Sealth hit Colman Dock hard enough to cause minor injuries to seven people, and knock some wood piling parts onto the deck.  

The dock approach is an especially sensitive part of navigating across Puget Sound, where engines are set in reverse in the final moments to stop the boat. In some older vessels, such as the Kaleetan, the captain’s speed orders are executed below deck by a chief engineer, a system requiring constant two-way dispatches between the navigators and the engine room. Newer boats provide direct control to the captain, Sterling said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Christine Clarridge contributed to this report from Southworth, Kitsap County.