Three feet can be the difference between clinching a Super Bowl victory and going home empty-handed. Three feet can be the difference between fitting a couch through a door frame and assembling one from scratch in your living room.

On Monday morning, three feet was roughly the amount of space between the walls of the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Ballard and each side of a Washington state ferry the width of a six-lane highway.

The ferry, Elwha, was en route to Lake Union for maintenance. Ferries don’t always have to go through the locks to get fixed up; it depends which company wins the contract. The last ferry to travel through the locks was the Hiyu in 2017.

Several mates and masters who work for Washington State Ferries took advantage of the rare opportunity to observe Captain Alex Johnson piloting Monday’s expedition through the locks. It takes 15-20 years to gain the training and necessary certifications to learn how to navigate and conduct such a feat, said Bryn Vander Stoep, a spokesperson for the state ferry system.

The Elwha’s journey began at the Eagle Harbor Maintenance Facility on Bainbridge Island around 7:40 a.m. Guided by a tugboat, the 73-foot, 2-inch wide vessel hooked around Discovery Park and into the 80-foot-wide locks, where water flowed in to bring the boat up to the level of Lake Union and prevent Puget Sound’s seawater from mixing with the lake’s fresh water.

After surviving the squeeze, the ferry traveled under the Ballard Bridge, the Fremont Bridge and the Aurora Bridge to reach the Lake Union Drydock around 9:30 a.m.


Part of the Super class of ferries, along with the Kaleetan and the Yakima, the Elwha can hold as many as 144 cars. It usually takes passengers between Anacortes and the San Juan Islands.

The 52-year-old Elwha — one of the oldest ferries in the state’s fleet — will spend a few weeks at the Drydock before returning to the San Juans. Its vehicle deck will be power-washed, and steel on the car decks and passenger decks will be replaced. Of WSF’s 22 vessels, 12 are at least 40 years old and require frequent treatment and upgrades.

More than 100 people gathered Monday morning to watch the tight maneuver.

Elliot Porter, a 17-year-old from Edmonds, came to the locks with his friends, family — and a handmade replica of the Elwha. He spent three weeks during his winter break in 2017 building the replica from foam board, duct tape, clear tape and hot glue. At 5 feet long, 1 foot wide and 18 inches high, the replica is nearly to scale.

Porter said he’s a “huge fan” of Washington State Ferries and watched the Sealth ferry shimmy through the locks in 2016. He next plans to build the Puyallup, one of three ferries in the largest of seven classes in Washington State Ferries’ circulation.

More on the Northwest’s maritime industry »

In perhaps its most famous moment to date, the Elwha crashed into a reef near Orcas Island in 1983 while carrying 100 passengers. Initially, the collision was blamed on a faulty steering component, but authorities later discovered the captain had traveled off course to give a passenger a view of her waterfront home.

The captain resigned, and the ferry chief was fired for failing to report the incident. Damages totaled $250,000, and the incident inspired the song “Elwha on the Rocks.”

Spectators may have another chance to watch the spatial feat when the Elwha finishes maintenance, but its return trip out of Lake Union has not yet been scheduled.

Nearly 25 million riders took a Washington state ferry in 2018.