The week the ferries went still in the water

Today we enjoy the internet; social media; cellular communications; region-wide, color-coded real-time traffic information; and the almost comical attempts by local news media to outdo each other with their traffic and weather reporting, but in the summer of 1991, there was none of that.

BREMERTON — If you think that commuting across Puget Sound can be a headache, consider this: 25 years ago, one of the most popular runs in the Washington State Ferry system was snarled by a rare confluence of events, and caused one of the biggest messes in the system’s history.

Today we enjoy the internet; social media; cellular communications; region-wide, color-coded real-time traffic information; and the almost comical attempts by local news media to outdo each other with their traffic and weather reporting, but in the summer of 1991, there was none of that.

The WSF system had only a handful of cooperative news-oriented radio stations to help them, such as KIRO and KOMO.

In the first week of August that year, the Bremerton newspaper (then known as the Progress) reported mechanical problems on not one, but two of the three passenger-only boats serving the Bremerton-Seattle run. The unusual rash of mechanical problems totally scrambled the commutes of hundreds of people.

In many cases, the riders had not been told that their usual ferry was out of service until they reached the dock to board. Aside from asking local radio stations to help them get the word out, WSF officials said they had no effective way to give advance warning.

It fell to a smart, competent WSF communications officer, Susan Harris, to attempt to reign in the chaos.

“As soon as I hear of a breakdown, I call it in to all of the Seattle television and radio stations,” she said. “I also tell Metro Traffic (a subscription news service used by virtually all Puget Sound media outlets), Metro Transit and the television stations.”

Harris said she tried to get the word out as soon as she heard that the system was snarled.

“But you don’t schedule engine breakdowns in advance,” she said. “Sometimes I only get last-minute notice.”

Ordinarily, there would be a backup ferry ready to slot into service, she said.

“But this time two of our three passenger-only suffered mechanical breakdowns at the same time.”

The Kalama blew an engine on Aug. 2 that year. The Tyee, normally penciled in as the first backup, also required an engine rebuild and had to be pulled off the route. Only the Skagit remained in working order by the end of the week.

Assistant Port Captain David Black said at the time that the ferry system did its best via the media and the public-address systems at the terminals and on board each boat.

Now, of course, each ferry commuter has a cell phone in their hand and likely a laptop or tablet in their backpack — ready to be connected at a moment’s notice to the boat’s wi-fi signal. The communications technology available to virtually everyone today would have shamed the people who put a man on the moon nearly half a century ago.

The harried communications officer had one of the busiest weeks of her working life, trying to make sense of a cluster of breakdowns that is unthinkable today. Mechanical breakdowns are a fact of life for the operators of such a complex system.

Black was sympathetic to the plight of people like Susan Harris.

“It’s just not an exact science yet as to how to keep the public informed,” he said.

For modern commuters armed with cell phones, tablets and Twitter, the communications vacuum back then now sounds quaint. But today, all of the modern tools at the hands of both the public and ferry officials have made the job a good deal easier.

 

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