The new, 1,500-passenger Samish, complete with a sun deck, will provide a much-needed capacity boost for times when an older boat goes out of service.

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ANACORTES — The nation’s busiest ferry system ought to become more resilient Sunday, when the new Samish makes its first passenger voyage to the San Juan Islands.

The 1,500 person, 144-car ferry is a slightly improved version of its sister vessel Tokitae, which began running last year between Mukilteo and South Whidbey Island.

Even people who don’t board the Samish ought to benefit, because adding this 24th boat to the fleet will help ferry leaders to cover all 10 routes in the event an older boat stalls or is pulled out for maintenance.

That’s been a struggle.

Last summer, when an electrical failure took the huge Tacoma off the Seattle-Bainbridge run, Washington State Ferries (WSF) had to temporarily cut the Edmonds-Kingston run to one ferry, and serve other routes with smaller boats than usual. Even before that, the 61-year-old Evergreen State had been pulled out of retirement, and the tiny, 34-car Hiyu remains in service.

“The strategy is to keep building, and keep replacing, because we have an older fleet,” said ferries director Lynne Griffith. “We need standby vessels.” Hopefully, the Evergreen can move to a reserve role, she said.

Built at Vigor Industrial in Seattle, the $126 million Samish is the second of three medium-sized ferries being built this decade. The Tokitae started service last year, and a third boat, the Chimacum, is to be ready for the Seattle-Bremerton route in 2017.

A fourth 144-car “Olympic-class” boat would be built if the Legislature approves a multibillion-dollar transportation plan, which features a 11.7 cent gas-tax boost and more vehicle fees. Griffith said she might someday propose a fifth vessel, to run on liquefied-natural gas.

Roomier design

The first thing passengers will notice on the Samish is more room to get around than on its older peers, such as the Elwha, built in 1967 and rebuilt in 1991. The car decks add distance between vehicles, as well as clearance for kayaks, canoes and campers in the side ramps. The staircases are 4 feet wide and there are two elevators.

But the Samish’s most impressive feature for passengers is the sun deck, Griffith said. It ought to get plenty of use Sunday, when mostly sunny skies and temperatures in the 70s are forecast.

“With the high level of tourism, it’s great for people to get their first view of the San Juan Islands, and the return view. It’s beautiful up there,” she said.

Not only is the Samish’s sun deck open, but the Tokitae’s sun deck will open for the summer season, after it was cordoned last year to save money.

The sun deck requires two extra seamen for a total of 15 crew members, compared with 13 otherwise. The increase is needed for quick evacuation of the sun deck in an emergency, as well as to tackle fire-suppression and security duties, said Capt. John Dwyer, Coast Guard chief of inspection for the Puget Sound region. The two additional crew members are also required for the boat to carry more than 768 people, or about half its capacity.

The Samish has been performing smoothly in sea trials.

Below deck, two 3,000-horsepower diesel engines are linked directly by gears and shafts to power either the bow or stern propellers, or both.

“When I move the controls in the pilot house, the response is instantaneous. There’s no lag time,” said Capt. Greg Sugden, who is training the crews.

Both rudders can move at the same time, and they’re articulated to provide more angles — for instance, to power against a crosswind while aiming for the dock. There should be fewer occasions when captains and mates need to back up and try again, or to approach quickly before winds can buffet the boat, Sugden said. In a lifesaving drill, the rudders helped Samish pivot so the captain could continuously see the rescue target.

“My inspectors are impressed with the way it operates, by its maneuverability,” said Dwyer, of the Coast Guard.

Of course, the first few months pose a challenge, like the shakeout for any grand machine.

The Issaquah in 1980 suffered blown oil gaskets, an elevator breakdown, a power loss while hitting dock pilings, a sudden engine reversal and generator troubles. More recently, the Tokitae stalled this past April. The smaller Chetzemoka leaned due to a design quirk when it entered service in 2010, and after months of defensiveness, ferry executives ordered ballast to level it.

Cost concerns

Samish’s quality validates state policy to keep ferry construction and jobs in Washington, though it would be cheaper to build them outside the state, said state Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island. He co-sponsored a bill that placed a 25-cent surcharge on all ferry tickets to cover a fraction of the Samish’s cost.

Republicans have complained about ferry-construction costs, and made proposals to trim them. A 2013 state audit found that six boats each cost $7.5 million to $42 million more than ferry systems elsewhere would have paid.

The free-market Washington Policy Center argued that open bidding would have saved enough money to get “two ferries and one for free,” if the state mimicked B.C. Ferries, which has purchased vessels from Poland.

In a compromise, the GOP-led state Senate this year approved a clause in the proposed transportation package saying that if Washington state shipyards’ bids are more than 5 percent above engineering estimates, outside builders would be allowed to bid.

Costs at Vigor have declined a few million dollars with each Olympic vessel, in line with advice in the state audit to build a series of ferries using one shipyard and design.

Griffith, who became ferries chief last summer, said the 144-car ferries can serve any route except Bainbridge-Seattle. In fact, WSF previously suggested replacing aging boats by building a total of eight Olympics by 2029. Washington ferries carry 23 million people a year, and 10 boats are at least 40 years old.

The Samish offers one more feature to add reliability — it carries enough life preservers and rafts to rescue a full load of 1,500 people. Most ferries lack a full supply, so that if their partner boat on a route breaks down and therefore cannot help in an evacuation, the remaining boat is limited to half capacity. In other words, the Samish can carry full loads even if the neighboring boat stalls out.

Ranker said islanders will be grateful for a new ferry. “It’s not unusual, it’s the norm, to have ferries breaking down regularly,” he said.

“The biggest thing is reliability, having a vessel that works.”