BREMERTON — When Kitsap County voters approved a sales tax increase in November to pay for fast ferry service to Seattle, Kitsap Transit officials were faced with a decision: begin service as soon as the tax dollars became available, or wait for a backup boat.
The agency elected to go forward with one vessel — the experimental low-wake catamaran Rich Passage 1 — with Washington State Ferries serving as a de facto backup.
Almost immediately, the RP1 ran into problems.
Just a week into service, the RP1 was sidelined because of a malfunctioning propulsion control box. A failed turbocharger and blown head gasket canceled sailings in early August. In September, the vessel had issues with its exhaust system and hull.
A total of 118 sailings were canceled between July 10 and the end of October.
Service has been more consistent in October, but Kitsap Transit is still trying to answer questions about the cause of the breakdowns and convince riders of the RP1’s reliability. With a second vessel not scheduled to join the route until 2019 at the earliest, the agency is also trying to figure out the best way to keep the RP1 in good shape until a backup can be delivered.
Kitsap Transit knew the risks of a one-boat schedule going in, executive director John Clauson said, but it didn’t anticipate problems to this degree.
“We were very clear with the community that we’re going to start this route with one boat, and it’s a piece of machinery, it’s going to break,” Clauson said.
To date, $91,000 has been spent fixing the RP1, according to Kitsap Transit records. The budget for repairs for all the agency's foot ferries and their docks — including the ones that ply Sinclair Inlet to Port Orchard and Annapolis — is just over $1 million.
To course correct, Kitsap Transit has spent money to overhaul the RP1’s exhaust system and secure three backup engines. The transit board has hired a consultant to do a rapid review of the service and give recommendations before the end of the year.
“I think we’re gaining on it. We’ve learned a lot in the last three months in a variety of areas,” Clauson said.
An experimental vessel
A decade ago, Washington State’s successful fast ferry service was scrapped after property owners sued, claiming the vessels’ wake was damaging the shorelines of Rich Passage. The RP1 was built in 2009 to traverse the strait quickly while generating minimal wake.
After four months of successful sea trials in 2012, Kitsap Transit stored the RP1 in Port Townsend, where it would stay for the next five years. During that time, the RP1’s experimental hydrofoil fell off and caught fire in separate incidents. In 2013, the boat ran aground on its way to Port Townsend.
Transit officials think most of the problems with the RP1 can be traced back to those years spent in storage. Clauson acknowledged that having any vessel laid up for that amount of time isn’t ideal, but Kitsap Transit was hesitant to spend money on upkeep until it had dedicated funding.
“As soon as the voters approved it, we immediately started moving forward with getting the vessel back in the water,” Clauson said.
The RP1 had “virtually no problems” during sea trials, Clauson said.
Most of the mechanical issues appear to stem from clogged filters in the vessel’s exhaust system. The excess pressure created by the blockages caused temperatures in the engine to skyrocket.
Those filters weren’t included in the original design, according to Matt Mullett, president & CEO of All-American Marine, which built the RP1. Because Kitsap Transit uses similar filters on their buses, they decided to use the marine version on the RP1 to help reduce emissions.
Higher temperatures caused the ensuing engine problems, including the broken turbocharger and head gasket.
“Once we took (the filters) out of the system, we eliminated an awful lot of the heat-related problems,” Clauson said.
Transit board members have also questioned the impact of overworking the boat’s engines.
To reduce wake to the point where it won’t damage neighboring shorelines, the RP1 has to increase its speed through Rich Passage. Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erickson has expressed concern that running the boat at full-throttle that often could burn out the engines.
Erickson asked the board for an independent inspection of the RP1 prior to the purchase of any new vessels.
“We need to make sure we understand the nature of one we have before we go out and buy another one, that’s a big deal, that’s a big question,” Erickson said.
The board chose Darrell Bryan, former CEO of Clipper Navigation, to lead the investigation. In his first report to the board in October, Bryan indicated excessive wear on the engines could be an issue.
According to Bryan, the RP1’s engines run at maximum power about 20 percent of the time. While some wear and tear is expected, he ruled out the possibility of engine problems as the source of the RP’s mechanical woes.
Bryan’s recommendation — and Kitsap Transit’s plan — is to replace the engines as needed with the three spares the agency bought in October. The old engines will be refurbished and kept as spares.
“I think they have a pretty good plan on that, because there will be wear on them,” Bryan said.
Some breakdowns appear to be genuine bad luck. The RP1 was sidelined in September when a broken sea strainer allowed water into the compartment that stores the electronic propulsion controls. The sea strainer was new and had been recently replaced.
“It’s important to realize that this is a highly-specialized craft, more akin to a helicopter than a fixed-wing plane,” All-American's Mullett said in an email. “There are many moving parts that need to function as they are designed for it to work properly.”
Navigating a one-boat schedule
Mechanical issues aside, reliability will always be an issue without a dedicated backup vessel, according to San Francisco Bay Ferry general manager Marty Robbins.
In San Francisco, like Puget Sound, a congested interstate corridor and toll bridges make the idea of passenger ferries especially appealing to commuters.
San Francisco Bay Ferry runs between Vallejo, Oakland, Alameda, San Francisco and South San Francisco. Robbins, who oversees the Vallejo-to-San Francisco route, is scrambling to purchase enough new ferries to serve growing demand.
Ferries on the Vallejo-San Francisco route have a one-hour trip each way. The boats run at 34 knots the whole way. Ridership may be demographically similar to Kitsap: Vallejo is the former home of a Navy shipyard with a slightly lower cost of living than a nearby city.
But when service started in the Bay Area in 1999, Robbins had three boats at his disposal for a two-boat schedule. Running a one-boat schedule with one boat is a tall order.
“It just can’t be done reliably, because boats are not like production automobiles that roll off an assembly line,” Robbins said. “They’re all custom made, they’re all hand-built basically, they’re complex machines, and they operate in a harsh environment.”
The only reason Kitsap Transit moved forward with its summer start date for ferry service was because WSF was available as a backup for riders, Clauson said. If the RP1 was canceled for some reason, riders could at least catch the car ferry to or from Seattle.
It might be inconvenient, but it would get them home.
“We would never start a bus route without a spare,” Clauson said. “But we did in this particular case because we have, in essence, a backup.”
Kitsap Transit is finalizing the details of the next two Rich Passage-class boats with All-American Marine. Work on RP2 would ideally start in January, with RP3 beginning a few months later. The earliest the boat could be delivered is January 2019.
In the interim, the agency has talked with King County Marine about borrowing its backup boat, the Spirit of Kingston. The vessel has been tested and could make it through Rich Passage, but King County would have priority should one of its boats break down. An agreement likely would require Kitsap Transit to absolve King County of liability for shoreline damage.
Without a backup, Robbins said the best bet to keep the RP1 afloat is frequent checkups. Kitsap Transit has two-full time mechanics who work on the RP1 daily after morning and afternoon sailings and on Sunday when the boat doesn’t run.
“I think the real key to getting through this growing pain period is going to be to establish a very rigorous plan for inspection and preventative maintenance and just putting the hours and the cost — and it's not going to be inexpensive — to babysit that one vessel for the year or the year-and-a-half that (Kitsap Transit is) going to need in order to get a backup in place,” Robbins said.
Since September, when the RP1 missed over 60 sailings, the service has been quietly getting back on track. Eight sailings were canceled in October, four because of bad weather.
The transit board last month OK’d the purchase of a new exhaust system and spare engines for the RP1. Mechanics now have a stockpile of spare parts that should help expedite repairs.
Kitsap Transit is in talks with All-American Marine about design changes for the next two vessels. Mullett, All-American Marine’s CEO, said both vessels will have “wet exhaust” (underwater) systems and better insulation, which should make the boat quieter.
Clauson has also asked about moving propulsion controls to the cabin, where they can’t get wet, and putting a thermometer in the engine compartments so the crew can monitor the temperature in real time. Many of the research-specific instruments on the RP1 will also be removed on the new models, Clauson said.
The agency is still committed to beginning service next summer in Kingston, but Clauson says he isn’t worried about a repeat of the Bremerton route’s struggles.
While Kitsap Transit waits for a new boat for Kingston, it’ll be using the M/V Finest, a 21-year-old ferry the agency bought from New York for $2.3 million. The 350-seat vessel will be shipped to the West Coast and rebuilt from top to bottom.
“It's virtually going to be a new boat in a 21-year-old hull,” Clauson said.
The agency also plans to lease another vessel for the Kingston route, so the Finest will have a backup when service begins in 2018.
Passenger ferries offer an opportunity to improve the quality of commute for Kitsap riders, Robbins said, but life “goes sideways” when the boat gets canceled. Riders won’t use a service they don’t trust.
“The reliability is going to hinder the growth and success of the service if it can't be remedied, so that’s the No. 1 challenge it seems like,” Robbins said.
A timeline of breakdowns
A look at the cause of missed sailings since fast-ferry service began in July.
July 18 (4 sailings) – Electrical problem with propulsion unit
July 19 (4 sailings) – Electrical problem with propulsion unit
July 20 (6 sailings) – Electrical problem with propulsion control box (control box replaced)
Aug. 3 (6 sailings) – Failed turbocharger
Aug. 8 (4 sailings) – Blown head gasket
Aug. 12 (20 sailings) – Replacing blown head gasket
Sept. 4 (12 sailings) – Cracked hull
Sept. 5 (12 sailings) – Cracked hull being repaired
Sept. 6 (9 sailings) – Exhaust system problem
Sept. 7 (12 sailings) – Exhaust system problems being fixed
Sept. 14 (6 sailings) – Broken sea strainer/fried propulsion control box
Sept. 15 (6 sailings) – Broken sea strainer/fried propulsion control box being repaired
Sept. 28 (3 sailings) – Human error/ventilation fans
Sept. 29 (6 sailings) – Human error/ventilation fans
Oct. 7 (4 sailings) – Mechanical issues
Oct. 18 (4 sailings) – Inclement weather