Historic ferry taken off Bainbridge Island

An icon of the Washington State Ferry system’s stay on Bainbridge Island ended this month.

The MV Olympic, a one-engine, 600-passenger, 50-car ferry put in operation in 1954, was towed out of Eagle Harbor after a 13-year residency in there.

Since the historic vessel left the island, it has hit rough seas. Towed south down the Sound by its new owner, the boat ran aground on Ketron Island, and the incident is now being investigated by the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Natural Resources.

The boat was taken south to Ketron Island on May 3 by new owner Tom Palmer, a resident of nearby Steilacoom.

Palmer did not return phone calls requesting comment.

After only a few days on Ketron Island, the boat broke loose during a windstorm and ran aground on a nearby beach. When Palmer towed the vessel to Ketron Island he tied it to his waterfront property and the adjacent Pierce County ferry dock, which the municipality immediately objected to, said Gloria Van Spanckeren of Pierce County Public Works.

Van Spanckeren said one of the vessel’s moorings broke, causing the ship to run aground.

“When the tide was out, the Olympic was resting on the beach; when the tide came in it refloated,” she said.

Since then, the U.S. Coast Guard and the state Department of Natural Resources have investigated the vessel to see if its repeated drifting on and off shore has caused damage to the small island’s shoreline. The agencies determined that the boat needed to be inspected by the owner, refloated and then anchored away from the beach.

“After that, the Olympic remained pretty much where it was, i.e., it was not moved away from the beach and anchored as indicated,” Van Spanckeren said.

DNR was already looking at defaulting Palmer’s lease on a marina he owned on Ketron. When he took over the property from the previous owner he had a set of conditions to meet, which didn’t happen, said Wynnae Wright, DNR land manager.

The ferry itself has no bearing on Palmer’s situation, but the way it was moored does.

“The manner in which it’s moored was an immediate threat to safety,” Wright said. “The structures he’s using to tie the ferry to were never built to hold anything that big.”

The vessel entered retirement in the mid 1990s, after more than 40 years as a centerpiece of the WSF fleet.

The Olympic was purchased in 1997 by Bainbridge resident Darrell McNabb for an auction price of $71,000. McNabb intended to renovate the vessel and turn it into an attraction. Those efforts were unsuccessful, and McNabb tried to sell the boat.

“I was never able to generate enough income on it to pay for the restoration,” McNabb said.

Several years ago, McNabb donated the vessel to the Pacific Maritime Foundation so it could be auctioned off, but the Olympic remained in Eagle Harbor.

The vessel was listed on the online auction Web site eBay last summer and the Web site for the foundation for approximately $200,000.

When contacted about the vessel, a representative from Pacific Maritime Foundation said: “Thank you for interest, but we no longer own the boat,” and then ended the conversation.

The Olympic remains prominently featured on the foundation’s Web site.

In the years since its retirement, the old vessel has gathered rust and taken on some water. Even before being sold to McNabb, the boat sat idle for more than four years. It had an outdated engine and a heavy concentration of asbestos that made it unworthy of repair.

But despite the boat’s issues and McNabb’s difficulty turning it into an income-generator, he still holds the aging vessel dear.

“We enjoyed having it there; we enjoyed all the fun of it,” he said. “It’s a wonderful piece of equipment, and the only real ferry that looks like a ferry in the Puget Sound.”