Ferry-dependent commuters across Puget Sound shuddered at the images of the venerable superferry Walla Walla, ignominiously grounded on a Bainbridge Island beach over the weekend.  For the people who run those boats, it had to be downright humiliating.

The freakish loss of power and grounding could serve as an ominous warning of a deteriorating fleet. Or, arguably, the incident may be so odd as to suggest an exception that proves the rule – the rule being that Washington State Ferries are a remarkably safe way to travel.

Over the past 70-plus years, state ferries have carried hundreds of millions of passengers on perhaps 10 million trips.  Most of those routes cross major shipping lanes in all kinds of weather, day and night, year-round, subject to some of the world’s most powerful tidal currents.  There have been occasional breakdowns, computer glitches or bad decisions that have sent hulking ferries crashing into docks..,.

And yet, across seven decades, not a single life has been lost in a ferry accident.  Sure they get their share of medical emergencies, heart attacks, suicides and more.  But so far no accidental deaths.

Ferry officials are quick to remind taxpayers and passengers of their routine safety precautions – regular Coast Guard inspections, safety announcements and drills, a state-of-the-art traffic system to keep ferries out of the paths of container ships and nuclear submarines. And now and then they’ll remind us that those ferries are virtually unsinkable. 

That appears to be the case.  Because I tried.   Thirty years ago, I researched and wrote a piece about ferry safety for the Seattle Times Sunday magazine. To do that, I concocted an elaborate hypothetical situation involving the Walla Walla on its 7:10 am commuter run from Bainbridge. My handpicked circumstances included heavy fog, a huge fishing boat with an unlicensed skipper, a couple of clueless kayakers, a series of poor decisions. And, of course, Murphy’s Law: If it can go wrong, it eventually will. 

To do that, I got help from Dr. Ed Wenk, a brilliant engineering professor at the University of Washington, who had completed an extensive study of ferry system safety.  Wenk had concluded that, despite all those precautions, “the potentially most catastrophic accident on Puget Sound – collision, grounding or ramming – could involve heavy loss of life.”

Wenk died a few years ago, and his study dated to the 1980s.  But it involved most of the same boats, the same technology and practices used today.  The main difference is that today’s Walla Walla is 40 years older and, as we learned last weekend, she ain’t what she used to be.

Most importantly, they’re operated by people. Forty years ago, Wenk warned that, regardless of technological advances, ferries remain prone to “the ubiquity of human error.”  He had studied years of maritime accidents and concluded that 7.4 percent could be attributed to equipment failure, 5.8 percent to weather, and a staggering 66 percent to human error.

Witness last summer, when the ferry Cathlamet veered off course and rammed into the West Seattle dock, causing enormous damage – but no injuries.

Ferry officials have confidence in their fleet.  The boats are designed to be virtually fireproof, built with nonflammable materials, deluge sprinkler systems on the car decks, fire retardant chemicals in the engine rooms, bins of life vests.

And, like all the boats, the Walla Walla is supposedly unsinkable, designed with an overhang of about eight feet; the decks are cantilevered out, which reduces drag and makes the hull far less vulnerable in a collision. The hull is subdivided belowdecks into 13 watertight compartments, some of them sealed and others connected by watertight hatches.  To sink that boat, at least two of those compartments must be compromised and flooded.

So that’s what I did.  My hypothetical fishing trawler collided at just the right point, piercing the overhang and two compartments, flooding one end of the hull. Okay, it’s not likely, but it’s not impossible.

I took my draft to Wenk.  He made a couple of suggestions and nodded: Yep, that could sink ‘er.

Worse still, the Walla Walla and other state ferries do not carry enough lifeboats for everybody on board. This is in contrast to British Columbia’s ferries, similar boats designed by the same Seattle-based firm, but fully life-boated.  The difference is that BC ferry routes are much longer – 45 miles from Tsawassen to Sydney, for example.  Washington’s runs are mostly under five miles, and WSF officials have always reasoned that, if needed, rescue boats would be close at hand.

And they were right.  When the Walla Walla ran aground, the passengers were offloaded onto Kitsap Transit passenger boats and transported comfortably back to Bremerton, snapping smartphone selfies enroute.   No problem.

Gov. Jay Inslee watched from the Bainbridge beach. “Look, we have a very old fleet,” he told the Seattle Times.  “We desperately need new boats. We’ve known this for a long time.”

The Legislature has budgeted $1.5 billion over 16 years to build new vessels. But Inslee is old enough to remember when the state spent hundreds of millions on snazzy, computer-managed Issaquah-class ferries, and then got stuck with more millions of repairs to docks clobbered by computerized boats that didn’t know how to stop.

And so it goes. I’m a frequent ferry passenger.  I’ve sailed aboard the Walla Walla countless times.  I only sunk it once.

I blame it on Murphy’s Law.

Photo by Wikimedia. This article originally ran in Postalley.org


  1. Ross you are always on target! 30 years ago and today as well. Now we just need to deputize you to go down to Olympia and lobby for adequate funding for the vehicles on our “marine highway”! Make it so Ross!

  2. Cool history, Ross. Always enjoy your stories. Wonder if those stats hold true today… “7.4 percent could be attributed to equipment failure, 5.8 percent to weather, and a staggering 66 percent to human error,” The BC Ferry that ran over a sailboat up near Orcas, I think… is the scariest one to me. I met the guy who was in the sailboat who, along with his dog, miraculously survived!

  3. Nice article. I have rode many ferries in my lifetime and always felt safe and comfortable. Even during 9/11 when there were small boats armed with guns to protect them, I never felt unsafe. I wish we had two on the Port Townsend run. Sure would help out in Tourist season.

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