The Whatcom Chief went back into service last night, connecting Lummi Island to the rest of Whatcom County. It just came out of a three week yearly maintenance and had a huge 4 foot by 9 foot section of its corroded hull replaced with new steel. The ferry was built 54 years ago in 1962 and is ancient by steel ship standards. It has never had a total rebuild like the state ferries have after 20 or 30 years of service.
These facts alone are sufficient for serious concerns about the safety of the hull and this ferry. The questions that arise are how can we know if the hull is safe and the Whatcom Chief is safe. This is older than any Washington State Ferry and, without the rebuild they get, we on NWCitizen are going to investigate further into this question. Several people with expertise on ships have approached me with concerns, questions - enough to merit a search for the truth. Is the Whatcom Chief a safe vessel? I now think not.
A second urgent question concerns the overloading of the Whatcom Chief with vehicles and creating a danger to passengers. The present capacity of the ferry, per the county, is 18 to 20 vehicles, with fewer when large trucks are taken. The problem with 18 or more cars is they are so tightly parked on the deck that some or even most people cannot get ouf of their cars. They are too close to the car next to them to open their door enough to exit. If there is an emergency, such as a fire or sinking of the ferry, these people would be trapped.
This unsafe overloading has been going on for years even though many have expressed concerns to the ferry crews and the county supervisors. Over the past few weeks, the Coast Guard has been given photo evidience of this and they have expressed concerns. In preparing for this article, I have talked with county and coast guard officials. We can expect that the capacity of the Whatcom Chief may be reduced by 25% or more over the next few weeks. It may go down to 15 vehicles and possibly lower. The ability of passengers to escape from their cars is the law. Whatcom County has been knowingly violating that law for years. The Coast Guard will no longer ignore it. The photo above is of the ferry dangerously overloaded.
Back in June, Tip Johnson posted “Lummi Island Drawbridge”, which fully described the situation with the Whatcom Chief. Nothing has changed. Over the next few weeks, we will be trying to get more information on the results of the recent drydocking and maintenance. I am very confident the information above is correct and the questions are warranted.
We do have an option.
If we as a county community want to provide safe and sufficient ferry service to Lummi Island, what is available to us? The solution has been staring county executive Jack Louws in the face for two years. The Washington State Ferries has been offering to sell their surplus small ferry, the Hiyu, to the county. The county has repeatedly said no - even up to this week. We ran an article after Tip's article about the Hiyu by guest writer Jim Dickinson, titled “Hiyu Ferry for Lummi Island Service - Explained”. It fully explains how this ferry could serve us well for many years. The Hiyu option is cheaper than running the Whatcom Chief and a lot cheaper than building a new ferry.
In August, I was able to visit the State Ferries operations center on Bainbridge and receive a top to bottom tour of the Hiyu. The state ferry ops folks answered all questions as we toured for two hours. Engine room, decks, passenger cabins and the bridge. Everywhere. That ferry can carry 34 to 38 vehicles in safety - allowing drivers and riders in cars to get in and out of their vehicles at will. The Hiyu was built in 1967 and completely rebuilt in 2005 to 2007. It was lightly used as a backup and emergency ferry and so is in very good condition. The hull is in superb condition and ready for many years of service. I was told that the senior ferry captains consider it the sweetest, most well behaved ferry in the entire state ferry fleet. Plus there are spare propellers and other equipment on the deck for whomever buys it.
This past week, the Hiyu was put up for auction for any other government agencies. If there is no interest then on Monday, Oct 3, it goes up for auction to anyone. My bet is some smart outfit will buy it cheap, keep it moored at some shipyard and wait for the inevitable crisis in Whatcom County with the Whatcom Chief. Then they might sell to the county for a 20 fold profit. It is not too late for our county to bid for the Hiyu. The problem is entirely political. Louws wants to cut all spending to save for his fantasy jail. The council has not been told the true story on the condition of the Whatcom Chief nor of the Hiyu. Exaggerated scare stories have been concocted that the Hiyu is too big or the docks will require millions of dollars in alterations.
Some folks on Lummi Island may not want a larger ferry because they use the bad ferry service as a proxy for preventing increased development on the Island. Many do not like the logging on the mountain and so do not want a ferry that easily accomodates large trucks. Meanwhile, the Whatcom Chief scuttles with urgency back and forth as it often cannot handle all the cars waiting to cross. It often leaves cars waiting 20 minutes for the next run - and in peak times cars and passengers can wait for 2 or 3 ferry runs before then can cross. With reduced loading capacity, this waiting will increase.
If we want the Hiyu, then it will take pressure by citizens towards Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws. He has virtually shut down all discussion by the advisory boards and his Public Works department on this issue. This is a serious shame. He is playing a dangerous game with our safety.
We as a county community should not go near the risk of a third world ferry disaster with lives lost in a sinking of the Whatcom Chief in Hales Passage during a winter storm. We should have a sound, safe ferry of a capacity to serve Lummi Island with a level of service that makes living there as safe and normal as anywhere else in Whatcom County.
I will be pursuing this issue in the coming week, and posting again on this issue.