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Fuel Contamination Caused Washington State Ferry Grounding

fuel contamination caused ferry to blackout
Jumbo class ferry came to rest alongthe shoreline stranding passengers for up to six hours (Washington State Ferries)

Published May 4, 2023 3:27 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Coast Guard and the Washington State Department of Transportation have completed an investigation into last month’s grounding of one of Washington States Ferries’ jumbo vessels that left passengers stranded for hours. Initially, the incident was being blamed on a generator failure on the 50-year-old ferry but they have now determined that contaminated fuel caused the power failure on April 15.

“Investigation teams determined contaminated fuel led to generator failure (including backup systems) resulting in loss of propulsion and steering controls and the subsequent grounding,” Washington State Ferries writes in a brief update. They released the results as the 3,200 gross ton ferry Walla Walla returned to service yesterday on its regular route between Bremerton and Seattle.

The vessel had been making a later afternoon run on April 15 when the captain made an announcement to the passenger advising them that the vessel had lost power. Passengers aboard recounted to the local media that the captain said the vessel had lost power and its ability to steer. They were advised to brace for impact, although by most accounts it was a soft grounding.

The ferry came to a stop in Rich Passage, a narrow and curving waterway on the route. At the time there were 596 passengers aboard and 15 crewmembers. The U.S. Coast Guard responded and a rescue ferry was sent to offload the passengers, with some stranded for up to six hours. No one was injured and the ferry was later successfully refloated and moved to a facility in Bremerton where divers checked the hull.

Washington State Ferries reports that the investigation is still ongoing to determine how the fuel was contaminated. 

“To ensure a similar incident does not occur, all fuel currently on board has been tested,” they wrote reporting that it was found to be clean. “New, upgraded generator monitoring gauges have also been installed on both Walla Walla and its sister ship Spokane.”

Built in 1973, the Walla Walla is 440 feet long and has a capacity for up to 2,000 passengers and 188 vehicles. It is a double-ended ro-ro ferry powered by four diesel-electric engines. The vessel had also grounded 42 years ago in a similar location. It has been rebuilt several times, the last time being in 2003.

Washington lawmakers however are also questioning if the age of the vessel contributed to the latest incident. Representative Jake Fey of Tacoma, Washington has introduced a bill at the state house that would require the Department of Transportation to build at least two new vessels. The lawmakers point out the vital role the ferries play in the local economy. Washington State Ferries is the largest operating public ferry system in the U.S. The company currently has 21 ferries operating in Puget Sound and the greater Salish Sea with inter-state routes and service to British Columbia, Canada.