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Sept. 16, 2021

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Engine fire in state ferry Wenatchee will reduce capacity across Puget Sound

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SEATTLE — People traveling across Puget Sound can expect delays this summer, because last month’s fire aboard the ferry Wenatchee has forced the state to use smaller vessels than normal on several routes.

Washington State Ferries is operating 18 vessels instead of the usual summer fleet of 19 boats.

Besides a reduced number of ferries, state officials say crew shortages and quarantines related to COVID-19 further limit capacity, just as peak travel season begins. Lower-capacity schedules take effect Thursday night.

The jumbo ferry Wenatchee remains docked at Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island following the April 22 fire.

That blaze occurred in the diesel engines during a test cruise, following an engine rebuild. It’s being investigated by Washington State Ferries, the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board.

The Wenatchee, one of the state’s three largest ferries, might be idle four to six months though managers don’t have a time or cost estimate yet, said WSF spokesperson Ian Sterling.

With that boat docked, the state loses capacity for 202 cars and 1,791 passengers. (The current Coast Guard license, which presumes 15 crew members trained in evacuations, doesn’t allow the boat’s full capacity of 2,500 persons.)

For now, the Seattle-Bainbridge route will operate with the 202-car Tacoma, paired with the smaller 188-car Walla Walla or 144-vehicle Kaleetan. The Seattle-Bremerton route will include the slower 64-vehicle Salish, and lose one early-afternoon round trip, until at least June 27.

The Mukilteo-Clinton line, which carries the most vehicles, will operate with one vessel smaller than normal.

The Port Townsend-Coupeville route will use only one boat from June 7 to 27, while the Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth triangle won’t increase to three boats until at least June 7.

Though the jumbo ferries Puyallup and Tacoma are still running, they’re capped at 450 walk-on riders, to ensure 6-foot social distancing.

WSF hasn’t had to turn walk-on riders away since the coronavirus outbreak began in March 2020, but as vaccinations increase and more seats open to Mariners and Sounders FC fans, demand could rise. It’s unclear how many downtown office commuters will return this summer.

While the commuter-dominated Bainbridge-Seattle route still serves only half its usual ridership, ferries beyond Seattle carry at least 80% of normal levels, generating one- or two-hour delays for drivers on some busy weekends.

Fleet assignments will likely change, especially if a boat breaks down. WSF will announce changes through online bulletins.

Anacortes ferries to the San Juan Islands will run as normal, and are already fuller than usual some days. But trips to Sidney, B.C., remain suspended because of COVID-19-related border closures. Otherwise, the fleet would be stretched a boat thinner, Sterling said.

“We’re able to maintain service, but if one boat goes out what can you do?” he said. “This is a great plan, provided nothing goes wrong.”

In other ferries news, WSF opened its pedestrian walkway onto vessels at its rebuilt Mukilteo terminal April 26, while Kitsap Transit launched a fast Southworth-Seattle passenger-only ferry.

The King County Water Taxi has returned to full summer schedules, including seven-day service to West Seattle.

And state lawmakers, in the new 2021-23 state budget, approved $177 million to build a new hybrid ferry at Vigor Industrial in Seattle, and retrofit two boats with rechargeable batteries — to reduce or eliminate diesel burning.

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