Back home on the Hyak

The recent proposals for the future of Washington State Ferries contain a bright spot for an old favorite, the superferry Hyak. The Hyak was launched on Dec. 17, 1966, and christened by Mrs.Daniel J. Evans, then First Lady of Washington. Mrs. A. Ludlow Kramer, wife of Washington’s Secretary of State, served as matron of honor. Hyak was built along with her three sister ships, Kaleetan, Yakima and Elwha, in San Diego. Alex Saluskin, former Yakima Tribal councilman, in full tribal regalia, spoke at the launching ceremonies on May 20, 1967.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated more than $11 million toward the financing of the new vessels in the framework of viewing Washington State Ferries as a mass transit system. The cost of the Hyak was $5.5 million; she was designed by W.C. Nickum & Sons of Seattle and built by National Steel & Shipbuilding Company.

On her delivery voyage, her temporary false bow was swept away by heavy seas and she stopped in San Francisco to have a stouter one built. Her inaugural cruise was July 27, 1967. The Hyak was a new flagship for the system: She was the first double-ender and had two car decks. This set a trend that has been followed in many of the newer vessels. She replaced the Willapa and Kalakala on the Seattle-Bremerton run.

Hyak in mid-life stride

I remember riding the Hyak while the SS San Mateo was still on the Seattle-Bainbridge Island run. The Hyak made crossings from Seattle to Bremerton in 45 minutes flat. Coming back from Bremerton on a 4 p.m. sailing, the old steamer blew her whistles and maneuvered out of the way of the Hyak, which arrived at 4:45 p.m. at Colman Dock, making an unforgettable contrast between the superferry and the steamer.

Hyak continued as the number one vessel at Bremerton until 1981 when she was replaced by the Chelan as service to Bremerton was downgraded. She began a long period as a standby vessel at Eagle Harbor, serving Anacortes-San Juan Islands-Sidney, Edmonds-Kingston, Seattle- Bainbridge Island, Seattle-Bremerton and Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth routes. Finally, in the summer of 1989, she became the No. 2 vessel at Edmonds-Kingston and held that position until July 1998 when the Spokane took over and Hyak again became a relief vessel spending a lot of her time in the San Juan Islands and Bremerton.

Many commuters like the two full passenger decks on the Hyak, and commuters used to refer to the lounge on the upper deck opposite the galley as the library because it was quiet and uncrowded. The Hyak, like all the ferries, has had her share of scrapes. She was traveling at almost 19 miles per hour when she hit a reef off Anacortes in 1986. There was painting being done and she had the east wind on the fresh paint; the vessel had turned around to shelter the work and on turning again, struck a reef and had to be pulled free by a tug. It made for dramatic pictures and cartoons in the press.

The Hyak is now slated to receive a $20 million dollar upgrade. She is still a great vessel and has shown up on the Edmonds-Kingston run lately and done fine with the schedule. Because she carried 58 fewer cars than the Puyallup, she’s not quite an ideal relief vessel for the run.

An earlier passenger steamer named Hyak that ran from Seattle to Poulsbo in the early 20th century (1909-1941) is featured in a book called “Echoes of Puget Sound” by Captain Torger Birkeland. In that book, there is a chapter called “Back Home on the Hyak.” The captain enjoyed working on the old steamer, and that chapter title always comes to mind when the modern Hyak shows up at Kingston.

The Kingston Ferry Advisory Committee would like to see her become the designated relief vessel based at Kingston and available to carry summer weekend overloads. Hyak was the boat featured in Alex Young’s WSF ferry poster for Kingston.

Rex Lee Carlaw is a member of the Kingston Ferry Advisory Committee.