The water in Keystone Harbor sparkled as Washington State Ferries Capt. Dennis Hausdorf looked over the helm of the Kennewick, easing it into the small harbor.
“It might as well be a mill pond, it’s so calm right now,” he said.
The ferry slowly made its way forward to the dock, nestled between the Fort Casey beach and the Keystone spit in the harbor ferry workers call “the hole.”
“Hey Bill, are you out there?” Hausdorf called over the radio, looking down onto the loading dock, where a worker dressed in bright orange prepared to lower it.
“Yes, sir,” his reply crackled over the radio.
“OK, we’re coming in.”
On a bright and calm January day, landing the ferry at the Coupeville terminal is no problem.
But rough winter weather, tidal currents and battering winds make “the hole” one of the most challenging landings in the state. In the past two years, the Port Townsend-Coupeville ferry has run aground three times, and weather and tidal currents have caused frequent cancellations in the winter months.
Captains, chief mates and quartermasters who operate the ferries can never grow complacent, Hausdorf said.
“Your insides tighten up a little bit, because it’s a wild ride coming in here sometimes,” he said. “It’s a narrow, shallow hole. And at the mouth of it, you’ve got a current that can be like a river.”
To deal with the issues the route faces, Washington State Ferries has included several upcoming service enhancements in its long-range plan, which was published in December and details changes planned until 2040.
One of the plans for the Port Townsend route includes reopening the Keystone Harbor study to determine if the current harbor can be modified in a way that accommodates bigger boats and safer landings, or to see if another location might be used.
SMALL BOATS REQUIRED
There are three ferries in the state that can run the Port Townsend-Coupeville route: Salish, Kennewick and Chetzemoka. Each ferry holds 64 cars. In comparison, the Kingston ferries hold 144 cars.
“We would love to be able to extend the season here and run more often, because there certainly is the demand,” said Ian Sterling, the public information officer for WSF. “The small boats definitely handicap us. There’s plenty of demand, especially in the summer season. You can fill these boats every run, but they’re expensive to run.”
The route had 838,739 riders in 2018, Sterling said. That number is 4 percent more than 2017 and up 72 percent from 10 years ago. The ridership on the route bottomed out in 2008 at 488,457 riders, Sterling said.
“This is arguably the toughest landing in the system,” Sterling said. “It’s a really tight space and no room for error if you have something go wrong mechanically.”
If one boat runs aground or experiences mechanical issues, service during the summer season gets cut in half. The third boat, the Chetzemoka, currently is on the Point Defiance-Tahlequah route.
“These are the only class of boats that can run this route,” Sterling said. “Back when we talked about replacing these with bigger boats, the Port Townsend community wanted smaller boats. So that’s what we have, partly because of that community feedback. Could that change some day? Maybe, but you’d have to change this harbor as well.”
The Keystone Harbor study was first opened in 2003, when WSF began to look at three possible sites for improving the harbor: a modified and improved version of the current harbor, and two sites to the east of the current harbor.
The plan was to begin construction on a modified or a new harbor by 2007.
But there was some pushback from the community at the time, said Tom Thiersch, chair of the Jefferson County Ferry Advisory Committee.
“They didn’t have the reservation system in place,” Thiersch said. “People were worried that bigger boats would make the traffic problem worse. Sims Way used to get all jammed up with cars. They had to hire a Washington State Patrol officer to direct traffic.”
In November 2007, the 60-car Steel Electric ferries were pulled from service in what Thiersch calls the “Thanksgiving Massacre of 2007.” At the same time, the Keystone Harbor study ended, and none of the proposed options for improving the harbor were chosen.
Now that the reservation system helps ease the amount of waiting traffic, Thiersch said he thinks reopening the study to bring bigger boats to the route could be possible.
“We would probably need a bigger dock on the Port Townsend side to hold more cars waiting to load the ferry,” Thiersch said. “And we would definitely have to do some major work on the other side.”
Sterling said improving the harbor to bring bigger boats on the route is something WSF is looking toward as a long-term solution.
LONG RANGE PLAN
The WSF long-range plan includes many improvements for all of the ferry routes in the state from 2019 to 2040.
One large goal for the entire system is to have hybrid-electric ferries on all routes by 2033.
For the Port Townsend-Coupeville route, WSF plans to add one round trip this year and expand summer hours beginning in 2026.
In the long term, WSF plans to continue studying possible terminal and harbor improvements.
Adding electric boats to the route will also include improvements to the terminals, so that the vessels will be able to charge while docked.
The plan also will extend the second boat’s operation into the early spring in 2028, once the fleet has the relief vessels to support extended service.
Relief vessels for when something goes wrong, and larger boats to accommodate more cars and to withstand the heavy winds and winter weather on the route, will bring reliability to the ferry system in Port Townsend.
Hausdorf said he will tie up when the westerly winds reach 40 knots because the small boats will be pushed up onto the beach at the Coupeville harbor.
“On days like this, it’s like a boat ride, like a pleasure cruise,” Hausdorf said. “This is probably one of the harder runs … You cannot get complacent up here in the wintertime. It’ll bite you.”