10/19/2006Of all the ferry runs that cross Puget Sound, one gets canceled for rough seas more than all the rest combined. More than two hundred times last year, the Keystone ferry, between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend, couldn't leave the dock because of dangerous currents in Admiralty Inlet. For our series on the churning waters of Puget Sound, producer John Ryan reports from the bow of the M-V Klickitat.
FEWER PASSENGERS RIDE THE KEYSTONE FERRY THAN ANY OTHER IN PUGET SOUND. BUT THE STATE IS PLANNING TO SPEND UP TO SIXTY MILLION DOLLARS TO MAKE THE CROSSING SAFER. FERRY CAPTAIN TIM MCGUIRE KNOWS ADMIRALTY INLET WELL.
MCGUIRE: "This is a nasty stretch of water."
STRETCHING BETWEEN WHIDBEY ISLAND AND THE NORTHEAST TIP OF THE OLYMPIC PENINSULA, ADMIRALTY IS THE MAIN ENTRANCE TO PUGET SOUND. IT'S ALSO A FIVE-MILE-WIDE FUNNEL FOR WEATHER AND WAVES COMING OFF THE PACIFIC.
MCGUIRE: "It stretches out that way all the way to Japan, a long ways for the wind to drive the waves. The waves will come and slam into Whidbey Island and bounce back off of Whidbey Island. So you get waves coming in all different directions some times, just one spot you can't do anything right, you're just going to get beat up."
IN BIG STORMS, CARS ON THE CAR DECK HAVE BOUNCED INTO EACH OTHER, AND WAVES HAVE SMASHED THROUGH CAR WINDSHIELDS. BUT IT'S THE CURRENTS, NOT THE WEATHER, THAT PLAGUE THE KEYSTONE FERRY. ON THIS SUNNY MORNING, WE'RE FIGHTING A THREE AND A HALF KNOT CURRENT. ANY FASTER THAN THIS, THE FERRY WOULD BE CANCELED UNTIL THE TIDES CALM DOWN AGAIN.
MCGUIRE: "We used to make landings in excess of 4, 4.5 knots, and then there were too many groundings."
THE HAIRIEST PART OF THE RUN IS ENTERING THE NARROW KEYSTONE HARBOR. FERRIES HAVE TO BREAK ACROSS AN EDDYLINE THAT SEPARATES THE SHELTERED WATER OF THE HARBOR FROM THE MAINSTREAM OF CURRENT THAT SHOOTS ACROSS THE ENTRANCE.
MCGUIRE: "It's white knuckle often times here, any time you're coming through one of these big currents. When you're making an approach to Keystone, you don't look anyplace other than directly ahead. You don't look left, you don't look right, because all you see is rocks."
EARLIER THIS YEAR, VISITORS WERE BANNED FROM THE PILOT HOUSE ON ALL WASHINGTON STATE FERRIES AFTER THE FBI SAID THE FERRY SYSTEM WAS A TOP TERRORIST TARGET. BUT LONG BEFORE TERRORISM WAS A CONCERN, THE STATE DISCOURAGED VISITORS ON THE BRIDGE OF THE KEYSTONE RUN. HERE'S FERRY SPOKESPERSON MICHELLE NORFOLK.
NORFOLK: "The Port Townsend-Keystone route is so precarious with the tides that the captain needs to have total concentration."
SO WHILE CAPTAIN BILL CHAPPLE GETS WHITE KNUCKLES IN THE PILOT HOUSE, OFF-DUTY CAPTAIN MCGUIRE GIVES THE PLAY-BY-PLAY FROM THE BOW.
MCGUIRE: "We are on final approach, and we've got a strong current running across the face, the entrance to the harbor. There's a lot of rocks on that side, and the other side, to the left, there's a big sandy bulge on the beach. So the captain actually has the vessel pointed at the beach right now."
AS WE BREAK INTO THE STILL WATER, THE SHIP TWISTS TO THE RIGHT. A FINAL SHOVE OF CURRENT ON THE STERN SETS THE BOAT STRAIGHT DOWN THE NARROW CHANNEL.
MCGUIRE: "That was a perfect landing. So this captain just went through a high-stress level, coming through a 3.4, 3.5 current landing. Now we're in the dock, and he's breathing a sigh of relief. He's held his breath for four or five minutes. But I'm gonna tell you that the tension, goes way, way up. You can actually get your knees shaking up there."
RYAN: "Most passengers probably have no clue?"
MCGUIRE: "Especially when somebody just lands it like Bill just did and it looks like a piece of cake."
EXCEPT FOR THE OCCASIONAL WHIRLPOOL OR EDDYLINE AT THE SURFACE, IT'S HARD TO SEE THE LIQUID CHAOS INSIDE PUGET SOUND. SO IN A WINDOWLESS COMPUTER LAB ON THE UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON CAMPUS, OCEANOGRAPHY STUDENTS ARE TAKING THEIR OWN FANTASTIC VOYAGES.
OPPENHEIMER: "If you press on the left mouse button, and slowly push the mouse forward, you'll fly forward, so this is the way to fly."
COMPUTER GRAPHICS ENGINEER PETER OPPENHEIMER IS SHOWING STUDENTS HOW TO NAVIGATE A VIRTUAL-REALITY PUGET SOUND.
OPPENHEIMER: "Let's fly up Admiralty Inlet towards the Keystone Ferry dock. Right now, we're flying over the water at about 100 meters, so let's lower our elevation to go underwater."
LIKE SOME IMPOSSIBLE JAMES BOND VEHICLE, WE PLUNGE INTO THE SEA. THEN WE SKIM THE CANYONS AND RIDGES AT THE BOTTOM OF THE VIRTUAL SOUND.
OPPENHEIMER: "Flying underwater, it almost looks like you're flying over sort of a mountainous landscape, but we're underwater."
VIRTUAL PUGET SOUND IS FILLED WITH ARROWS THAT CHANGE SIZE AND DIRECTION AS THE TIDES EBB AND FLOOD.
OPPENHEIMER: "Currents in Admiralty Inlet are quite strong, and in some cases, I see signs of turbulence where the arrows are changing direction very rapidly, and I would think that would be potentially challenging to navigate."
OPPENHEIMER SPEEDS UP TIME SO A DAY'S TIDES PASS IN JUST 10 SECONDS. AND HE HIGHLIGHTS THE EVER-CHANGING LEVELS OF CURRENT AND SALINITY.
NEON COLORS FLICKER ACROSS THE SCREEN LIKE THE LICKING FLAMES OF THE NORTHERN LIGHTS. IT'S JUST BEAUTIFUL.
STUDENT: "Is the green the current?"
BUT THE CLASS IS NOT JUST EYE CANDY.
STUDENTS CAN SEE HOW THE ROLLERCOASTER CURRENTS STIR UP THE PLANKTON THAT LIFE AT SEA DEPENDS ON. AND IN VIVID COLOR, THEY CAN SEE WHY SOME PARTS OF THE SOUND, LIKE HOOD CANAL, ARE MORE VULNERABLE TO POLLUTION THAN OTHERS.
IT TAKES A 3-D COMPUTER MODEL TO CAPTURE THE MOTION OF THE SOUND BECAUSE HERE, TIDES DON'T SIMPLY MOVE IN AND OUT. THEY DOGLEG AROUND ISLANDS, BOUNCE OVER UNDERWATER RIDGES AND SLAM INTO EACH OTHER.
SAILOR AND AUTHOR JONATHAN RABAN CALLS PUGET SOUND "AS INTRICATE AND DEVIOUS A SEA AS ANY IN THE WORLD."
BACK IN THE REAL WORLD, ON THE KEYSTONE FERRY, CHIEF ENGINEER KARL JACOBSEN WORKS IN THE BOWELS OF THE KLICKITAT.
JACOBSEN: "It's a good boat, a good ol boat, I call it the queen of the fleet."
HE'S SURROUNDED BY DIALS AND GUAGES DATING BACK TO WW2 AND BEFORE. DOWN HERE IT FEELS LIKE A GERMAN U-BOAT IN SOME OLD WAR MOVIE. THE KLICKITAT WAS BUILT IN 1927. IT'S ONE OF ONLY THREE FERRIES IN THE FLEET THAT CAN FIT IN KEYSTONE HARBOR
JACOBSEN: "We have some of the roughest water in Puget Sound. We run this boat 16 hours a day, a lot of time on the old boat."
THE ENGINE ROOM AND THE PILOT HOUSE COMMUNICATE WITH AN OLD-STYLE SHIP'S TELEGRAPH.
JACOBSEN: "I've worked on this boat since 1989."
RYAN: "If they replace it with something new, will you be sad to see it go?"
JACOBSEN: "Yes I will, but I'll probably go about the same time this boat does."
THE FERRY SERVICE HOPES TO REBUILD KEYSTONE HARBOR, OR ELSE BUY NEW BOATS SPECIALLY DESIGNED FOR THE AREA'S TREACHEROUS CURRENTS, IN 2009.
I'M JOHN RYAN, KUOW NEWS.
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