Four aging ferries leaving Eagle Harbor for Mexican scrap yard

The retired steel-electric ferry Nisqually, currently tied up at the yards on Bainbridge Island. - Brad Camp/File Photo 2008
The retired steel-electric ferry Nisqually, currently tied up at the yards on Bainbridge Island.
— image credit: Brad Camp/File Photo 2008

The Steel Electric ferries have been a fixture in Eagle Harbor for over a year, and a serving Puget Sound commuters for over 60.

Now, the four aging vessels – the Illahee, Klickitat, Nisqually and Quinault – have been sold to Eco Planet Recycling of California for $200,000.

The 82-year-old ferries will be towed to Mexico in mid- to late July to be scrapped and salvaged.

It has been a long run for the boats, languishing in Eagle Harbor while Washington State Ferries desperately tried to sell them to the highest bidder. WSF even listed the steel behemoths on eBay, but to no avail.

Now it appears WSF is down to the only viable bidder in an effort to offload the ferries before the turbulent winter season makes it impossible to tug the ferries south.

"We were at one point hoping to get $500,000 for them," said WSF spokesperson Marta Coursey. "But we had to get more aggressive trying to selling them."

Coursey said that space at the Eagle Harbor maintenance facility is also becoming an issue.

"It's becoming premium space and we could use it for ongoing maintenance of our vessels," she said. "We need to get vessels in and out in a hurry because we don't have enough ferries in reserve."

WSF had maintained that the steel electric ferries were worth about $450,000 apiece as scrap metal.

Last September, WSF announced it was negotiating a deal with Environmental Recycling Systems to unload all four boats for $500,000.

However, that deal fell through after as a result of the global economic downturn.

"Very shortly after that deal was announced the bottom dropped out of the scrap metal market and never recovered," Coursey said. "Since then we have been trying to work with a couple of companies trying to find a viable option."

The 1,300-ton vessels will likely be towed two at a time from Seattle to Ensenada, Mexico, where their diesel engines, propulsion systems, piping, wiring and other components could all be stripped and sold.

The departure of the boats marks an end to the vessels, which crossed the Puget Sound during the golden age of the blossoming Washington State Ferries service.

The four ferries were built for use on San Francisco Bay in 1927 and 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-Seattle route from 1950 to 1968.

Each boat is 256 feet long and capable of carrying 615 passengers and 75 vehicles at 12 knots, and powered by two 1,200 horsepower diesel-electric engines.

The ferries were overhauled in the late 1950s: 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.

WSF continued to use the steel electrics until November 2007 when they were yanked from the Port Townsend-Keystone route after cracks and pitting were discovered on the hull of one of the boats.

Coursey noted that all memorabilia and historically significant artifacts have been removed from the vessels. And despite their historic significance to WSF, "we don't have the funding to keep them and we need to move them," she said.

All money from the sale will go into the WSF capital fund.

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