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Tuesday, December 4, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Examining extent of hull damage

Seattle Times staff reporter

Huge steel plates have already been cut from the rusted underbelly of the state ferry Quinault, but shipbuilders working to repair the 80-year-old vessel still don't know how much of its hull has been corroded, pitted and cracked from its years of sailing between Port Townsend and Whidbey Island.

Washington State Ferries pulled all four of its Steel Electric ferries from service Nov. 20 after an inspection of the Quinault showed evidence of deteriorating steel. Because of strict U.S. Coast Guard regulations, hull plates must be rewelded or replaced once they've lost 25 percent of their original thickness.

The Quinault, and a second ferry, the Illahee, are now in dry dock at Todd Pacific Shipyards on Seattle's Harbor Island.

On Monday, the news media were escorted alongside the Quinault for a close-up view of its aging hull.

A week after ferry officials canceled car-ferry trips on the Port Townsend-Keystone route, a passenger-only ferry, the Snohomish, began making daily trips between the Olympic Peninsula and Whidbey Island. But there isn't another car ferry in the state's fleet that can navigate Keystone's narrow, shallow harbor.

Two shifts of 40 shipbuilders are working seven days a week to replace 10 to 15 percent of the Quinault's steel-hull plates in hopes of returning it to service by February. A second team of Todd employees is closely inspecting the Illahee, blasting away paint to get a better look at the steel below.

"It's a discovery process," said Ken LeRoy, a shipyard project manager overseeing the inspection and repair of the Quinault and Illahee. "The extent of it [the damage], we don't know."

The state's Steel Electric ferries were all built in 1927; hull plates have been replaced before, possibly in the late 1950s and again in the 1980s, when the four ferries were refurbished and their machinery was renovated.

"It's amazing, really, that our engineers have kept them operating in a safe condition for so long," said Traci Brewer-Rogstad, Washington State Ferries' deputy executive director, who attended Monday's media briefing.

The decision to pull all four Steel Electric ferries out of service "has been looming over our heads for quite a while," she said. "This just magnifies the situation we're in."

Whether the Illahee will be repaired "will depend on what we find," Brewer-Rogstad said.

The other Steel Electric ferries are sitting idle, too. Officials have yet to decide if they will repair the Klickitat, which is now "tied up in Port Townsend," Brewer-Rogstad said.

There are no plans now to repair the Nisqually, which is at the Washington State Ferries maintenance yard in Eagle Harbor.

"We want to do what we can to get a few more years out of the Quinault" while state officials fast-track the purchase of new boats, Brewer-Rogstad said.

As for repairing the Illahee, "it will depend on what we find," she said.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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