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Wednesday, October 4, 2023
Oct. 4, 2023

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Several problems likely to blame in Washington ferry grounding


SEATTLE — When the ferry Walla Walla ran aground Saturday, the culprit, according to Washington State Ferries, was a failed generator.

But while it appears a generator did fail, investigators will be looking for other, more systemic problems as well.

“There’s a lot of redundancy in ship systems just like there is for aircraft,” said spokesperson Ian Sterling. “For something to happen like this, probably multiple things went wrong and we’ve got to get to the bottom of that.”

Things can and often do malfunction aboard the ferries, but full-time crews in the engine room are in place to react and keep the boats moving.

The fleet’s largest boats, which run on a hybrid of diesel and electric power, are designed to continue running even when one generator is out. The Jumbo class ships “can and do operate with one diesel generator out of service for repairs and maintenance,” reads a 2018 planning document from Washington State Ferries.

“Things do go wrong out there often enough, but it goes to a backup system,” said Sterling.

Finding the answer to what failed may take some time. Washington State Ferries has launched an investigation into the grounding. The U.S. Coast Guard will also be looking into the malfunction, Chief Petty Officer Steve Strohmaier said.

The Walla Walla is 50 years old, although that alone may not explain the failure. The ship had just months earlier gone in for regularly scheduled maintenance and is viewed as a “workhorse” in the ferry’s fleet, said Sterling.

“This is one of those things that shouldn’t happen,” he said.

Divers examined the ship’s hull, which rested on a southern Bainbridge Island beach for many hours Saturday evening and Sunday morning, for damage, and did not find any major issues at first inspection, said Sterling.

Meantime, the smaller ferry Issaquah has been moved to the Bremerton route. Only one ship has been sailing that crossing for several years now, as the ferry system works to dig itself out of a crew shortage. The Seattle to Bremerton ferry is considered a lower priority for service restoration than other routes that have two boats.

Although the ferry system’s fleet is stretched thin and in need of an increasing level of maintenance, crew shortages are still sidelining more sailings than vessel issues. As a result, boats like the Issaquah can be moved to Bremerton without further reducing service elsewhere.

For as dramatic as the grounding was, “it went about as well as it could for a bad situation,” said Sterling. Passengers were patient, even though it meant pausing their plans for a Saturday night.

Britt Jezak, a photographer from Port Orchard, was on her way to document a marriage proposal at Seattle’s Great Wheel, which she missed (the answer was yes). As she was waiting, she noticed many of the passengers were “dressed to the nines,” in gowns and military uniforms. They were members of the Navy, on their way to a ball in downtown Seattle.

When the announcement came that they’d have to evacuate the boat, Jezak could see their disappointment. She thought to herself, “What if I can do what I do best, which is lifting people’s spirits?”

So she set up a little photo studio on the passenger deck, snapping portraits of the well-dressed couples in formal wear and life preservers. Soon, she was offering free photos to anyone who asked. By the end of the night, she’d taken more than 1,000, staying up to until 4 a.m. Sunday editing when she finally got home to send them out in the morning.

The contrast of the fancy dress and orange flotation devices was a mood lightener in what could have been a heavy atmosphere.

“I was just cracking up the whole time,” she said.