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.