WSF auctions four Steel Electric ferries on eBay

The Steel Electric ferry Illahee awaits its fate at the Eagle Harbor maintenance facility. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
The Steel Electric ferry Illahee awaits its fate at the Eagle Harbor maintenance facility.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

The same year Ford Motor Company was rolling out its Model A, shipyards on San Francisco Bay were churning out Steel Electric ferries.

Eighty-one years later, Washington State Ferries is selling the last four Steel Electric ferries of its fleet, vessels that have become both a reminder of the agency’s golden era, and a punchline for its recent troubles.

eBay auctions for the Illahee, Klickitat, Nisqually and Quinault end Saturday evening. Minimum bids were set for $350,000 each and as of Friday afternoon, there were no bidders.

After nearly 60 years of service for WSF, the four Steel Electrics were pulled from operation on the Port Townsend route in November, amid concerns that their steel hulls were failing. The four are now stored at WSF’s Eagle Harbor maintenance facility.

WSF spokesperson Hadley Greene said state Legislature instructed the agency to have the ferries on the market by July 21.

“In the past we have found that eBay is the fastest and most cost effective method of selling them,” Greene said.

WSF has had mixed results as an eBay seller.

The passenger ferry Tyee was sold on eBay in 2003, and was used for a short lived private ferry service between Kingston and Seattle.

The passenger ferry Chinook was the most recent to test the eBay waters. It was listed twice in February with a $4.5 million opening bid, but received no offers.

Greene said WSF has received several inquiries from interested parties since the steel-electric ferries were listed July 16.

Any buyer will need a grand vision.

The ferries are 256 feet long and capable of carrying 615 passengers and 75 vehicles at 12 knots, according to the eBay listings. Each is powered by two 1,200 horsepower diesel-electric engines, drawing from 10,000-gallon fuel tanks.

Built for use on San Francisco Bay in 1927, the Steel Electrics were later sold to the Black Ball line of Puget Sound. When the state Department of Transportation bought out Black Ball in 1951, the steel-electrics formed the core of the new WSF service. The Illahee served on the Bainbridge to Seattle route from 1950 to 1968.

The ferries were overhauled in the late 1950s. Their hulls were widened, windows were replaced and all three decks were reconfigured, changing their appearance dramatically. The engines were refurbished and hulls were repaired in the 1980s.

The boats were yanked from service last year by Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond after inspections showed numerous fractures in the vessels’ hulls.

Aside from questions of hull integrity, the boats are in remarkably good condition for octogenarians, WSF naval architect Doug Russell said.

“It’s a real credit to the crews and engineers who kept them maintained,” he said. “Overall they’re still in nice shape.”

Recyclers may be interested in breaking the 1,300-ton vessels, which WSF estimates to be worth $450,000 and $475,000 in scrap. The diesel engines, propulsion systems, piping, wiring and other components could all be stripped and sold, Russell said.

WSF has taken some communications and navigation gear off the vessels to use as spares for the fleet and the shafts were removed from the Quinalt.

“The rest of them are ready to start right up and go,” Russell said.

As for a company returning the boats to ferry service, they would first have to be recertified by the U.S. Coast Guard, Russell said.

The Steel Electrics had been grandfathered in by the Coast Guard, but that status has since lapsed. Russell said he wasn’t sure if it would be possible to refit the boats to meet Coast Guard requirements for carrying passengers in the U.S. Greene said WSF has received inquiries about the Steel Electrics from companies overseas. If the ferries find no takers on eBay, WSF will have to turn to a ship broker to market them, Greene said.

The City of Port Townsend may be one potential suitor if the Steel Electrics fail to sell online. Mayor Michelle Sandoval said her city is considering mooring one of the ferries on its waterfront, to be used as a space for shops, offices and community gatherings.

The city would conduct a study after the auctions close to determine the feasibility of using a ferry as a waterfront attraction. Sandoval said the idea maintaining a Steel Electric ferry is popular, because the vessels are a part of Port Townsend’s maritime history.

“For us, the Steel Electrics really reflect our values,” Sandoval said.

Two other Steel Electric ferries, the Enetai and Willapa, were retired by WSF in the 1960s and sold to buyers in California.

Enetai is now permanently moored on the San Francisco waterfront and is rented out for social functions under its original name, Santa Rosa. A ballroom and bar were installed inside.

Willapa, re-christened under its original name Fresno, met a less glamorous end. It is being refitted as a floating storage facility in Stockton, Calif.


Steel Electric ferries:

Length: 256’ 0”

Beam: 73’ 10”

Draft: 12’ 9”

Speed: 12 Knots

Engines: 2 Diesel Electric

Horsepower: 2,400

Autos: 75

Passengers: 616

eBay auctions for the four steel electric ferries close at 8 p.m., Saturday. Log onto and search for “steel electric ferry” to view the listings.

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