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A riskier world prompted the Coast Guard to require more life rafts aboard state ferries.
Washington State Ferries has operated the past 17 years with an alternative compliance plan that allows boats to run with fewer rafts if other ferries are nearby to help in an emergency. Kitsap County-based routes, on which ferries cross paths at least every 40 minutes, meet the definition.
But after a risk analysis, the Coast Guard now requires ferries to carry enough rafts to evacuate all passengers and crew members.
"We continued to evaluate and review incidents at other places in the country and worldwide to look at how the risk profile has changed," said Lt. Cmdr. John Fu of the Coast Guard. "Now we realize the risk profile changed considerably where we felt it was worthwhile to revise the noncompliance plan."
An agreement will allow Washington State Ferries to add 70 life rafts over the next 2 1/2 years, as the rafts are manufactured and $5 million acquired.
"It's something they worked on with us for some time," said ferries spokesman Ian Sterling. "From what could have been a really expensive and compressed timeline, we were able to work with them to come up with a smart solution that stretches out over 2 1/2 years. It allows us to continue operating as is for now."
Passenger capacity will be dictated by the number of life rafts. If a ferry is equipped with four 150-person rafts, it can carry up to 600 people. The change will result in reduced capacities.
"The real world impact to customers will be minimal as the new numbers, even though lower, are based on the number of passengers we actually carry," Sterling said. "Also, it has the big advantage of making vessels independent of each other and will be a big help especially when a vessel ends its service day or breaks down."
State ferries rarely reach passenger capacity, or even come close. It can happen when only one boat is on a route because of a breakdown, or its companion has tied up for the night. On the Bremerton route, the Kitsap retires after its 9:05 p.m. trip from Seattle. The Kaleetan, which normally can carry 1,885 people, drops down to 600 for its final three sailings. The 10:30 boat out of Seattle sometimes leaves passengers at the dock. On big event nights, WSF often keeps the Kitsap around for an extra sailing to avoid problems.
The new ferry Chimacum will replace the Kaleetan on June 25. It and six other new vessels were built with enough life rafts for everybody, so it can haul up to 1,500 passengers whether there's another ferry around or not.
A similar situation can occur on the Bainbridge Island route. The ferry Tacoma ties up after its 10:05 p.m. sailing from Seattle. The Wenatchee continues for five more trips, during which its capacity falls from 2,520 passengers to 1,200.
Tacoma, Wenatchee, and Puyallup will each add four 150-person life rafts for a total of 12, upping their capacity at all times to 1,800. To match the current 2,520 limit would require more rafts and evacuation slides that ferry officials don't feel are needed.
"Because we rarely exceed 1,800-passenger capacity on any single sailing, we are choosing to add the number of rafts that would meet the most likely maximum capacity need of 1,800," said Broch Bender of WSF.
The Klahowya, which will be retired soon, won't get additional rafts, nor will the Hyak, which will become the backup boat when the Chimacum arrives in June. The Elwha and Chelan already have enough rafts because they're outfitted to sail to Canada.
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