Introducing MV Suquamish, the state’s newest ferry

Suquamish, our newest ferry, was christened last month at the Vigor Shipyard in Seattle. Members of the Suquamish Tribe sang songs, shared cool gifts and gave their namesake ferry their blessings for many safe voyages.

Christening ceremonies — in which a ship, like an infant, is given its name — go back to antiquity. Here’s an example, from an 1675 ship launching:

“Two friars and an attendant went into the vessel, and kneeling down prayed halfe an houre, and layd their hands on every mast, and other places of the vessel, and sprinkled her all over with holy water. Then they came out and hoysted a pendent to signify she was a man of war; then at once thrust her into the water.”

By colonial times, the ceremony had evolved into paying tribute to King Neptune by pouring a goblet of wine or whiskey on the boat and using the rest of the barrel for a party.

Since the early 20th century, except during Prohibition, the norm has been to break a bottle of champagne on the ship’s bow. If you’re tempted to do this at home, consider using a special bottle that’s been scored so that it will break. Or use another wine, since champagne bottles are infamously tough. Put it in a mesh bag first to catch the broken glass … and have another bottle for giving the toast.

Replacing the fleet

It takes Vigor two years to build a boat. With seven ferries needing to be replaced in the next 15 years, and with one already past age 60, there’s no time to dilly dally. The options for new boats are: continue building the boats at Vigor; get a competitive bid elsewhere; experiment with new ferry technologies.

Keep the production line going

Suquamish is one of our 144-car ferryboats, which are a refinement of our Issaquah class boats. The intent is for a fleet of standard boats that can be used on any route except for Keystone, where the 64-car ferries do the job. Like Southwest Airlines using only 737s, using standard boats reduces the costs of equipment inventory, crew training, maintenance, dock arrangements and a host of other items. Continuing with the current production line at Vigor is low risk and leaves both business and labor equally delighted.

Bid a new boat

Our 144-car ferries are expensive. At the same time they were being delivered for $129 million each, BC Ferries bought the same size ferries for $87 million each. These new BC ferryboats can run on either natural gas or diesel. They use state-of-the-art thrusters to give ultimate maneuverability. Besides a lounge and cafeteria, they also have a gift shop, work/study stations, a pet area, and a children’s play area. Wow! So why the big price difference? BC Ferries used a Polish shipyard and, equally important, allowed them to incorporate the latest ideas in ferry design.

Could we get the same deal? No. The federal Jones Act prohibits using foreign built boats. Even when building ferries here, our “built in Washington” requirements jack up the price while also disqualifying us from federal funding. The Washington-built 64-car ferries cost about $70 million compared to $44 million for a sister ship built by a yard in Mississippi. Part of the difference was because of elaborate specifications which didn’t allow the shipbuilder to innovate. A larger difference is that big shipyards have sophisticated production lines that can build quality boats faster and more cheaply than custom shipbuilders.

New technologies?

Trusting that I don’t walk the plank beforehand, we’ll get into natural gas and electric ferries next month.

— Walt Elliott is a member of the Kingston Ferry Advisory Committee. Contact him at