Order to wear life jackets gives Elwha ferry riders a brief scare

Mechanical problems with one of the drive motors on the ferry Elwha gave passengers a scare Sunday evening when they were ordered to congregate on the main passenger level and put on life vests.

“We were shaking and the children behind us were all crying,” said Patty Knight, of Bellingham, one of hundreds of passengers on board for a trip from Friday Harbor to Anacortes.

The crew did a careful head count, and passengers kept the life jackets on for about 30 minutes before they were allowed to take them off, Knight said.

Ferry officials said the life jackets were only a precaution after smoke came from the motor, and it appeared to have electrical issues. The Elwha was able to continue at a reduced speed, using its other drive motor, and docked in Anacortes sometime around 8:30 p.m.

Electricians were dispatched to Anacortes, said Marta Coursey, the ferry system’s director of communications, and there were hopes it could be back in service as early as Monday morning.

The problem followed a ferry breakdown on Tuesday, when the Tacoma lost power near Bainbridge Island and had to be pushed to the Winslow terminal by tugboats.

That was the latest in a number of troubles the ferry system has experienced in the last couple of years.

The system also has canceled trips due to crew shortages and had problems with new ferries that listed sideways due to a design quirk, and last year a ferry in the San Juans hit a sailboat.

Still, the organization remains the nation’s largest and arguably safest ferry network, serving 23 million passengers a year.

On Sunday evening, the Elwha was about 20 minutes out of Friday Harbor when passengers, including David Moss, of Bellevue, heard a warning sound that Moss said sounded like one he’d heard about in the safety announcements before the voyage started.

Moss also heard loud clanging that appeared to come from the engine room. He and his girlfriend followed the crew’s orders to go to the main passenger level, where the crew distributed life vests.

He didn’t see any smoke, and neither did Knight, but Knight said some passengers reported smelling burning rubber, and the crew apologized for the heat, with all the passengers huddled together, and the smell.

The crew allowed passengers to take off the life vests after about 30 minutes, and the ferry then continued at about half speed to Anacortes, Moss said. A Coast Guard vessel followed behind the Elwha for most of the trip, he added.

Moss said he’d ridden a ferry only once before, and the event capped a weekend in which he’d celebrated his birthday and proposed to his girlfriend.

Knight, however, is a regular ferry passenger.

“I’ve been riding the ferries for 30 years, and I’ve never had anything like this happen,” she said.

The ferry Kaleetan was called into service to make the rest of the evening’s runs.

The Elwha was built in 1967 and rebuilt in 1991. It is about 380 feet long and can carry up to 1,090 passengers.


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