Hiyu ferry for Lummi Island service - Explained

Jim Dickinson writes: Why the surplus Washington State ferry Hiyu should replace the Whatcom Chief for our Whatcom County ferry service to Lummi Island.

Jim Dickinson writes: Why the surplus Washington State ferry Hiyu should replace the Whatcom Chief for our Whatcom County ferry service to Lummi Island.

By Jim Dickinson.

I would like to thank Tip for writing such an excellent and realistic article.  (See "Lummi Island Drawbridge" of June 25 by Tip Johnson.)

As the Chair of the Independent Lummi Island Citizens Committee, that wrote the study on the possible acquisition of the Hiyu, I would like to offer some clarifications, especially in light of Wynne Lee's comments to Tip's article.

The Hiyu report took over 10 very talented people about seven months to assemble, all issues completely researched with all sources identified, checked and carefully verified.

The outcome of the report was that the Hiyu is a very positive, viable option for use here on Lummi Island because of its excellent condition, availability, and extremely low acquisition cost. All issues that would have prevented the Hiyu from operating here were addressed, mitigated, and low cost or no cost solutions presented.

The Hiyu could operate here for about 15 years, before needing replacement. The mitigation does require some effort from the county, however real costs are quite reasonable. This would allow time to thoroughly vet and qualify the design of a new future vessel and try to eliminate the mistakes and ongoing inappropriateness that often happen with a rushed design during emergency procurement.

However, many members of the Lummi Island Ferry Advisory Committee (LIFAC), as well as the county executive and his employees, did not like what we wrote. They seemed more interested in maintaining the status quo, to the point of never engaging in a discussion of the report and its issues with the Independent Committee. They chose to use a more “imperial” approach by limiting debate with meeting rules and negative pronouncements where there was no opportunity to respond.

Although I do have opinions on the topics, at this time, I am not going to discuss the lease or LOS and will restrict my assertions to the service and the vessels. All of Wynne’s concerns are addressed in the Hiyu Report and its references. From the comments, we know not all members of LIFAC or the county officials or others who claim to be informed have read the 22 page Hiyu Report, including the county executive, who even admitted he had not. Few of these individuals read the 37 pages of Committee Initiated References, and even fewer read the referenced 400-plus pages of county and state sponsored studies and industry reports.

1. The Whatcom Chief  is indeed at 170% of it operational life. It has serious structural issues, won’t carry all road legal traffic, is too small, and is operating illegally. You could compare it to a good-looking, older truck with a great paint job that has a corroded undercarriage and bad tires. For a vessel of its size, it is extremely expensive to maintain and is being kept afloat by a river of money. The annual maintenance costs are about three times the actual value of the vessel. The 2015 dry dock uncovered more deterioration than the repair bid covered, so it was not possible to complete all repairs in the allotted time. This resulted in only the necessities being done, just enough repair to keep the Chief operating, with the other repairs deferred into the future. This year’s maintenance bill is going to be a doozy, likely over $500K, with just as much or more next year. That’s a million dollars in repairs over just two years for a boat with a market value of perhaps $150,000! When coupled with its other problems, including the possibility of sudden catastrophic structural failure, and not meeting safety standards, it ought to be retired.

2. Hiyu acquisition costs? In the Hiyu report references from the state ferry officer in charge of surplus property, at that time the exact amount had not been set yet, and ranged from $1.00 to $100,000.00 (still very, very, cheap). In a later conversation, when the status as surplus became imminent, the state ferry officer said that the state was ready to gift Whatcom County the Hiyu. In reality the figure is likely to be quite low, but the actual figure is unknown, as the county refuses to even make an inquiry of the state!

a. Hiyu status as surplus: to be sold as a fully, complete, operational ferry, including the Zodiac rescue  boat, as described by the published surplus survey, which Tip has.

b. Modification Costs: again covered in Hiyu Report and References. The free Legislative Re-Rate Procedure, for operation by existing crew, was proposed by the senior civilian coast guard inspector of the Seattle district and again described in the Report References. He informed us that he had never heard of a legitimate request ever being refused. Careful evaluation of the reports on dock modifications to land the Hiyu, indicate about $1-2 million maximum expense. The $7 million estimate brought forth by the county seems to be an intentional exaggeration. These documents have been posted and distributed, Tip has them. The Independent Committee has never been able to get a conference with the county or LIFAC to go over and explain these facts.

c. Time needed to get the Hiyu operating? Depends on the impetus put forth by the county. The Hiyu itself could be ready in two weeks; re-rating the boat - six months; dock modifications might take three months; emergency dock modifications could be effected in two weeks.

d. Dock modifications permitting? Only the approach slips need to be modified. All of these structures are on State of Washington Department of Natural Resources owned bed-lands, not Lummi Nation controlled tidelands. Yes, the Lummi’s have input, but they are not the deciding factor. In fact, the Lummi’s may indeed favor the Hiyu. The Hiyu would get the piled up lines of waiting cars out of their neighborhood quicker, take fewer trips, do a better job of carrying people to Fairhaven during flood emergencies, and work better in bad weather. In 2014, the county narrowed the mainland pilings after 30+ years of successfully landing the Whatcom Chief and eliminated the ability to accommodate larger boats like the Hiyu. This was done over objections from private citizens, the Independent Committee, PLIC, and contrary to the findings of the previous Ferry Task Report. Again, we were permitted no conference with the county or LIFAC, despite repeated requests. 

e. Hiyu Operating Expenses? All covered in Hiyu Report and References. The Hiyu will use less fuel. Once re-rated, the Hiyu can run with the existing 100 Ton Master and two crew. Temporarily during the re-rate period, Hiyu could run with a 500 Ton Master and three crew. On heavy passage days, after re-rate, the third crew member would be justified, just as the Whatcom Chief does now on high demand days. Wahington State Ferry (WSF) records, in References, show the Hiyu to be in much better condition, uses less fuel, and would require far less funding for maintenance.

The big elephant in the room that Wynne and others do not want to talk about is the illegal car loading on the Whatcom Chief, which goes on for nearly every full trip. We have heard everything from “it’s grandfathered” (from the crew), to “we have been doing it so long, it’s got to be legal” (from a LIFAC member). At one point, the Public Works Dept. said they “had an exemption to the loading rules.” We do not know of any 1962-built vessel such as the Whatcom Chief, or even a 1990s built vessel, that has not had its original vehicle capacity rating reduced. This includes the Hiyu, which was re-rated from 40 cars to 34. The WSF Evergreen State Class of ferries was re-rated from 100 cars down to 87. The original WSF 1980’s Issaquah Class ferries were re-rated from 100 cars down to 90. The 1999 Jumbo II Class was re-rated from 225 cars to 202. How can the Whatcom Chief, an original 1962 ferry then rated at 16 cars, now constantly be carrying 20-22 cars? We are not criticizing the crew; they are doing what they are told to do to try to keep up with the traffic. But while other ferries rating capacities have been reduced in the name of safety, the Whatcom Chief is carrying up to 37.5% more vehicles than it was originally rated for. This is an inherently unsafe practice.

This is one of the reasons three of us went to Seattle and met with the senior coast guard inspector. When asked about, the topic of load capacity and exemptions, he showed us the Whatcom Chief’s file. There were no exemptions in it as claimed by Whatcom County, only the Certificate of Inspection (its license). He then read us the loading rules and let us know there can be no exemptions granted on safety rules. For your reading pleasure here are those safety requirements pertaining to the loading of a ferry the size and rating of the Whatcom Chief. These requirements are replicated in the main Hiyu report’s references, and posted on-line in the Code of Federal Regulations. We have taken the liberty to bold the pertinent parts of the rule.

46 CFR 185.340 - Vessels carrying vehicles. defines T Class.

§ 185.340 Vessels carrying vehicles.

(a) Automobiles or other vehicles must be stowed in such a manner as to permit both passengers and crew to get out and away from the vehicles freely in the event of fire or other disaster. The decks, where necessary, must be distinctly marked with painted lines to indicate the vehicle runways and the aisle spaces.

(b) The master shall take any necessary precautions to see that automobiles or other vehicles have their motors turned off and their emergency brakes set when the vessel is underway, and that the motors are not started until the vessel is secured to the landing. In addition, a vehicle at each end of a line of vehicles or next to a loading ramp must have its wheels securely blocked, while the vessel is being navigated.

(c) The master shall have appropriate “NO SMOKING” signs posted and shall take all necessary precautions to prevent smoking or carrying of lighted or smoldering pipes, cigars, cigarettes, or similar items in the deck area assigned to automobiles or other vehicles.

(d) The master shall, prior to getting underway, ensure that vehicles are properly distributed consistent with the guidance in the vessel's stability letter and Certificate of Inspection, if applicable.
The fact that the Whatcom Chief routinely violates these safety requirements appears to constitute a serious breach of duty between the county and the riders. If the rules are followed, the Whatcom Chief would be cut down to about half the vehicle load capacity it now carries. This is not only possible, but seems inevitable, and would be disastrous to the wellbeing of the Lummi Island Community. The specter of an injury/death event is even more alarming, like that of a medical emergency or worse, an on-deck car fire. Despite best efforts, there would be no way the crew could get to the person requiring medical assistance or to contain a fire in the needed time.

In the event of such a fire, with their car doors blocked, the consequence of close proximity to adjacent cars, riders could not get out of their cars and away from the flames. Flames from an adjacent car fire would rapidly melt the electric window wiring to one’s own car, making an emergency exit via window or door impossible. The resultant consequences are horrifying. If the ferry were to start taking on water due to heavy seas or (as happened in 2010) due to a leak, and if the Whatcom Chief were to sink before it could reach the dock, people would be unable to exit their cars, and unable to avail themselves of the life jackets stowed in the cabins. Every time this is brought up, the possibility of such events is ignored or in the case of LIFAC, met with derision. As with the Titanic, many believe the Whatcom Chief is unsinkable, that disaster might strike elsewhere, but never at home.

Our group thought by proposing the Hiyu as a replacement for the Whatcom Chief, we had found an elegant solution, especially considering there is no funding available to build a new boat. The Hiyu’s very low acquisition cost, better capacity, better fare box recovery, lower maintenance costs, reduced fuel use, and enhanced ability to comply with safety requirements carried our conclusions. I guess we were just naive in our good intentions.

Once the Hiyu is snapped up by someone else, there is no other vessel on the entire West Coast that would be available to replace the Whatcom Chief. In the event the Whatcom Chief suffers a catastrophic failure or is taken out of service for safety reasons, or is restricted to loading vehicles legally, resulting in it only being able to carry ten to twelve [10-12] cars per passage, Lummi Island would be without a ferry for at least three years while a new one is built.

Guest writer Jim Dickinson is a lifelong resident of Lummi Island and Whatcom County. He attended Western Washington University and has business interests on both Lummi Island and Bellingham.

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Comments by Readers

Clayton Petree

Jul 13, 2016

I would like to remind everyone that only a few years ago the County Council **turned down a $11.5 million grant for a brand new ferry**.

“April 8, 2008
County Council members have been trying to decide whether to construct a
new ferry for years, and about a year and a half ago the county had been
awarded the grant from the state County Road Administration Board. The
money would have been paid in annual installments of about $405,000 over
20 years to pay off what would have been an $11.5 million bond for a new

Read more:

There were a couple of reasons.  That particular council had some very lofty anti-growth goals and was very much against people living on Lummi Island.  This was a way to slow/stop people from moving, living, recreating, and having a business there.  Also, the county was out of compliance with the WA growth management act at the time.  This could have prevented them from obtaining the grant unless they came into compliance (not to terribly difficult with some effort) - something they have overcome with other grants when held out of compliance.

So any money spent obtaining a ferry at this point will be money that didn’t have to be spent, not to mention the years of poor safety the residents of Whatcom County have had to live under.  I’m just glad we didn’t have an emergency that cost lives instead of “just” tax money.

So thumbs down to putting citizens at risk of harm and wasting money.


David Camp

Jul 13, 2016

Thanks, Jim, for your well-researched and comprehensive article. It seems to me that your proposed purchase of the Hiyu is very sensible and fiscally prudent.

I would like to hear from the County Exec. on this issue - what is his plan for the Lummi Island ferry crossing and what are the costs? How does it compare to your proposal? What’s the holdup? Maintaining the Chief is burning our County taxpayers’ funds and it seems to me to be throwing good money after bad. Won’t a better ferry service raise property values on Lummi Island and also tax revenues?


Bryce Read

Jul 13, 2016

This is a very interesting discussion and I’m glad multiple parties are paying attention and appear to be separating fact from wish/conjecture- so rare in local ‘journalism’ these days…

Are any of the parties involved following what appears to this layman as a similar situation occurring in Skagit with the Guemes Island Ferry?


Both vessels are 20-22 car (current CG rating), though the Guemes boat is 17 years newer (1979).

This is a ‘crazy’ idea, but perhaps some coordination with a neighboring county with similar requirements could reduce costs in implementing a new vessel on the Lummi Island run?

Yes, the populations, as far as a Census can track them are varied- Lummi Island 822 vs 605, and Hales Passage in my experience can have much rougher seas than Guemes Channel, but I’m curious what others think of this idea.

Two vessels designed to similar needs- economies of scale in production and procurement? Perhaps design/development costs could be shared or amortized over a multi-vessel order??

I realize communities often feel they have very specific needs for capital items such as ferries but perhaps needs of these two operators are not so different.

Combined with Whatcom County’s demonstrated propensity to ‘kick the can’ down the road as long as possible on important decisions, perhaps this process could expedite and lower acquisition of a vessel that more appropriately meets needs.

All parties in this discussion seem to agree the Hiyu solution would be temporary at best.

Wikipedia link on Guemes Ferry:



Jim Dickinson

Jul 15, 2016

I was at the hearing when the County Council decided not to buy the “New” Ferry. While I did not agree that keeping the Whatcom Chief was the right thing to do, I supported the need to getting a larger Ferry, just not that design.

The “new” Ferry was a prototype design and many of us considered it inappropriate for the Hale Pass route. It was basically a “river design” with nearly flat bottom, the high pilot house over the lower passenger space on one side, and propelled by Vogt Schneider Cyclodial drives, which were the newest “thing” at that time.  The boat would have suffered from direction instability, caught wind unevenly causing the boat to sail and roll in that direction of the high walled pilot house and, according to the designers, use about twice the fuel as the Whatcom Chief. It was supposed to be more maneuverable, but, all in all would have been less seaworthy as the old Whatcom Chief.

I left the hearing with an ache in the pit of my stomach, knowing neither keeping the Chief or buying that “NEW” Ferry were not the right decision, if we had bought the “New”,  we’d still be stuck with a newer disaster, instead of the old one we still have today. Over the intervening years the V/S drives have lost their favor by being fuel hungry, complicated, fragile, expensive, and maintenance-intensive, they are being pulled and replaced, all over the world.  Many of us would have been all over supporting a new boat of a proper design.

The one thing the designers got right was the capacity of the boat, at 35 cars. At the time I supported the County buying an excellent used 36 car freshwater Ferry from Lake Champlain for three million, it’s no longer available. The County had “New Ferry stars” in their eyes and rejected the used boat out of hand. They had gotten a quote from a Seattle boat relocation firm, to transport the used boat to Bellingham, for 2.8 Million Dollars, through a route, that upon research, was impossible. The owners would have delivered the boat from Lake Champlain to Bellingham for about 300K, County never called them up to ask, sound familiar? 

The plan the county executive has for a replacement ferry, from what he said in meetings, is basically to try to get grants from the Federal Government, tied to the Lummi Gooseberry Point Marina project.  As of January 2017, these older type grants will be gone, new ones are only for vessels within municipalities, we do not qualify. Chances of getting these kind of grants, historically has been about 2 %.

He has said he will support keeping the Whatcom Chief in service for up to 20 more years, if grants cannot be gotten,  try to keep “traditional access” available. He said the county will deal with any problems, failure, load reduction, etc.,  at that time.  Therefore, in reality he has no plans to get a new ferry at all, perhaps maybe a rented passenger vessel. He did cite the possibility of looking into the smaller Seattle based Ferry TREK, on reserve, but that possibility is now off-the-table too.

He did say that he was instructing his employees to not bid on the HIYU, it would be a step sideways. How can a virtually free boat, that’s five years newer, in great shape, hauls the appropriate amount of cars, burns less fuel, legal, can be re-rated to run with the same crew, more seaworthy, have farther emergency port access, cost less to maintain, and has less than half the overall hours and less than 1/5th the docking cycles on it, be a step sideways? To my take, it would be a huge improvement. Further I know of no significant community in Whatcom County that has no had major road access upgrade since 1962, why are we being penalized? With no grants available, a 100 million dollar Jail to be built, and a minimum 34 million Court House repair on the immediate horizon, the County will not have the ability to bond and buy a new vessel, his decision seems extremely short sighted and badly considered. 

Yes, a proper ferry would improve land values, tax collections, fare box revenues and the local economy. One of our group recently did a financial report, with proper management, the HIYU would not only do all that but also generate about 400K a year toward a new ferry. The county rejects changes to the system, inertia and inside interest keep them on the path they are on, they do not want to change virtually anything and reject any ideas that challenge their usual way of operation. Our group is still available for a conference on the HIYU, too bad the county won’t accept our help. Feel free to ask any questions on the topic, I will answer.

I will address the Inter-County situation in another response.

NWC is in process of getting all the HIYU reports achieved, until then, here’s a link to get the main HIYU report, which you may have to paste directly into your address window to get it to work:

  savetheferry.com/Citizens committee report on Hiyu 03082015s.pdf

Jim Dickinson


Jim Dickinson

Jul 17, 2016

The Guemes crossing, does not get the degree or frequency of bad weather that the Lummi Island crossing does. It does have a real hard running tide which flows crosswise to the ferry route and docks, this requires more boat maneuverability and control than at Lummi. The Guemes ferry currently uses right angle drives (RAD), like out-drives on boats, with 360 degree steering rotation. These systems cost more to build, more to maintain and use more fuel, The Guemes uses more fuel on a shorter run with less trips than the Whatcom Chief does over a longer day. Lummi Island ferries have done just fine since before 1920 with much less expensive conventional propellers and rudders.

If a common vessel was designed to meet both needs it would raise the costs for all, especially with Skagit Co. looking at using an electric vessel. Guemes channel requires increased maneuverability, Lummi Island needs more seaworthiness and larger capacity, and Lummi Island’s electrical grid is not as good as Anacortes.

In 2005-6, the Anderson/Elliot Bay study on Ferry capacity was done for Whatcom County. The results were that to meet the needed capacity at Lummi Island, a 35 car vessel was the right size. Then and now again,  with the rising demand, the Whatcom Chief regardless of it loading (overloading) is too small. A 20 car ferry could make 5 runs in two hours, considering usual delays and crew breaks, for 50 cars an hour maximum, average. Any larger ferry than that would not be able to make the same schedule, due to load times, and trips would decrease to two an hour as run timing needs to be consistent. Therefore a small size upgrade would actually haul fewer cars in the given time. The study recommended a 35 car boat, on a two trip/hr schedule which would have the possibility of a 40 percent increase of traffic capacity, a boat of the same capacity as the HIYU.

If we keep to a 4 lane boat like the two existing and the “New” 2008 Whatcom design (see above), it is very doubtful a larger conventional propeller design would work very well at Skagit, the boat gets too long and unwieldy. If we use the RAD propulsion, it dramatically increases build cost, maintenance expense, increases fuel use for Lummi Island. If we use the V/S drives (see above response) fuel use increases even more. In actuality, a shortened and stripped down version of the 2008 Whatcom design would work quite well for Guemes, and by using RAD’s, instead of the V/S drives, they could help contain the energy cost. Lummi Island does not need to be constrained by the four lane width, any longer than 35 cars again gets hard to control, 5 five or six would be better here, especially in light of possible future expansion.  The two boats need to be different. to properly serve their constituents.

The one thing they could do is to share a spare ferry, originally it was to be the Whatcom Chief, it’s pretty maneuverable because it’s short. It is now too expensive to maintain and with the other issues it ought to be retired. When the Guemes is replaced, although not optimum for Lummi, it could become the spare, it would work in all but the worst weather.  The HIYU might work at Guemes, I’ve been told the docks are wide enough, they have enough draft, it’s very maneuverable being fairly short for its width, like the Chief, and very well powered, we’d need to try it.

The vehicle capacity of a ferry is set by the operators based upon the Coast Guard regulations and industry standards. The Coast Guard does not tell anyone what the vessel ought to carry unless violations are observed,  they do maintain that proper vehicle egress standards shall to be enforced for safety. The Guemes has proper egress standards for the 23 cars they carry. The Whatcom Chief has proper egress standards for 10-12 cars, not the 20-22 it now carries, safety rules have changed since 1962. If all cars were the small, more can be got on the vessel safely. The Whatcom Chief has very narrow lanes, just about enough to legally put two Smart Cars or 1960’s Morris Mini’s, side by side in its dual lanes. Anything bigger than that is doubtful or illegal and most of the time it’s in violation of the above CFR 185.340, this has to change.

Yes, the HIYU’s tenure at Lummi Island would be temporary, although 15 years could be somewhat of a longer temporary. It solves the illegality issues, the very expensive maintenance on the existing boat,  can carry all legal traffic, lowers costs, handles the traffic, and still has a bit of room for growth. Today, Sunday, the system is piled up with 4-5 sailing waits, likely will hit as much as 7-8, before the end of summer, as it did last year. These waits cost everyone! There is no money for or will to get a new Lummi Island ferry, maybe sometime in the HIYU’s temporary tenure, at maybe 3, 7 or 15? years, the funding can be obtained, the new design gotten right. Until them she’s our best and only option.


Jim Dickinson

Aug 06, 2016

Here is the link to the Independent Committee’s “Committee Initiated References”.

These were generated by members of the group by interview, phone conference and review of documents. Especially to be noted are: The phone Interviews with the Caterpillar engine people, WSF Senior Captain Jack Hamsta, the interview with the Coast Guard Inspector John Winters, WSF Surplus Officer Tim McGuigan, and Matt Nicholls, CEO of Nicholls Brothers Boat-builders. The over 400 pages of Industry and County Reports are referenced in the back of the main report.
As you can see, our group did a great job of verifying what we wrote, we didn’t just fabricate the information as some do. Unfortunately, almost none of the County people read this document, if they had, I can’t imagine that they would have said what they did.

http://www.savetheferry.com/Independent Committee HIYU report references.doc

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