Steven J. Pickens photo

Steven J. Pickens photo

A ferry tale | Remembering the Elwha

  • Mon Aug 23rd, 2021 1:30am
  • Life

By David Hampshire.

A local bar created a drink in her honor. A local band celebrated her with a song. A local landmark was named after her. The Washington Post published an article about her. She appeared in a Seattle Times column among “Seattle’s Dubious Distinctions.” She has her own page on Wikipedia.

This is the saga of the Elwha, possibly the most famous — or infamous — ferry in the Washington State Ferries system. Or should I say, since she was taken out of service in 2019, this is an overdue obituary.

“She has an established dislike of ferry docks, chewing them up with gusto and regularity that hasn’t been seen since the Kalakala,” writes ferry historian Steven J. Pickens, still using the present tense on his website, evergreenfleet.com.

One incident, in particular, put the Elwha on the map — literally. If you were around in 1983, you may remember it. If you weren’t, think of it as the pilot for the 2012 Costa Concordia cruise ship drama in Italy — without the fatalities.

On Oct. 2, 1983, the 15-year-old Elwha was en route from Anacortes to Lopez, Shaw, Orcas and San Juan Island. At the helm was Captain Billy Fittro, a veteran pilot with more than 30 years of experience with WSF. Also in the wheelhouse that day was Peggy Warrack, a resident of Grindstone Harbor on Orcas Island.

Witnesses reported that the Super Class ferry took a bizarre route, traveling on the wrong side of Harney Channel, which separates Shaw and Orcas islands. After a surprise detour through Grindstone Harbor, the Elwha crashed into a reef near shore, gashing the hull in two places below the waterline.

“I’d guess it was doing 16 to 18 knots,” said Orcas resident Norman Kerr, who was watching from shore.

The wounded Elwha still managed to dock at Shaw but floundered while crossing the channel to Orcas.

“It did a 360 donut out there in the middle of the channel,” Will Hatch, one of the ferry’s 70 passengers, told The Seattle Times.

The Elwha finally reached Orcas and unloaded her passengers, leaving the stranded San Juan Island bunch to wait another four hours for the Kaleetan to rescue them. Meanwhile, Orcas Island volunteer firefighters and divers risked life and limb to suck saltwater from the punctured hull, dragging hoses from their pumper trucks and reversing the flow on the pumps. WSF crews then patched the hull and towed the ferry to the Lockheed shipyard in Seattle for repairs.

So what possessed the Elwha that day? WSF officials first blamed her erratic behavior on a faulty microswitch in the steering system. But that version didn’t hold water. By October 7, after a long talk with Captain Fittro, they were singing a very different chantey.

It turned out that Fittro had invited Warrack to join him in the wheelhouse. After a stop at Lopez Island, Fittro took the ferry on a spontaneous side trip at full throttle. “He simply wanted to show the woman her home [in Grindstone Harbor],” a WSF spokesman told The Seattle Times.

Captain Nick Tracy, WSF general manager, called Fittro’s actions “capricious.”

“No responsible person would take a 382-foot ferry into the narrow and shallow waters of Grindstone Harbor,” Tracy said.

A reporter from a Seattle radio station also revealed she had been on another trip piloted by Fittro that went so close to shore that frightened passengers started getting out life preservers.

Before the fog had cleared, both Fittro and Tracy had lost their jobs. Fittro resigned to avoid being fired and Tracy was removed by state officials who chastised him for delays in revealing the true cause of the crash. News reports said the state planned to sue Fittro for the cost of the repairs. The Elwha incident also prompted the state to take a hard look at the safety and operations of its ferry system.

Meanwhile, Warrack became a local celebrity. Much to her dismay, she was dubbed the Siren of the San Juans, a reference to a female figure in Greek mythology known for luring mariners to their deaths with her seductive singing.

A local store started selling souvenirs of miniature ferries attached to rocks. At the Electric Company Tavern in Friday Harbor, bartenders came up with a new drink named for the Elwha — equal parts Meyers’s Rum Cream liqueur and Meyers’s Rum. It was served, of course, on the rocks. And the Island City Jazz Band, which often played at the tavern, recorded a new song, “Elwha on the Rocks,” which quickly hit the airwaves in Seattle.

“Its medium is old-fashioned Dixieland jazz instead of rock,” said a Nov. 9, 1983, front-page article in The Seattle Times. “But ‘Elwha on the Rocks’ is the hottest new song in the Puget Sound area — a toe-tapping spoof on the now-famous Oct. 2 collision of the ferryboat Elwha with a reef off Orcas Island.”

The article, by staff reporter Don Duncan, said the song’s lyrics were written by the band’s tuba player, Friday Harbor resident Gary Provonsha.

“At first, those of who live up in the islands were horrified at what had happened,” Provonsha told Duncan. “Then, as the story began to unfold, we began to laugh.” In a letter to a friend, Provonsha joked about having “hit the bottom” in the music business.

Less than a month after that article appeared, the music died for the Provonsha family. On the evening of Dec. 7, 1983, Provonsha’s single-engine plane vanished on a flight from Bellingham to Friday Harbor. The wreckage containing his remains wasn’t found until the following May, on Buck Mountain, not far from Eastsound on Orcas Island.

Provonsha’s death was a shock to people on the mainland and in the islands. He was a respected businessman in Bellingham. He played the tuba for 18 years with the Cascade Symphony Orchestra in Edmonds. He helped launch the San Juan Island Jazz Festival in Friday Harbor. In Edmonds, the orchestra held a concert in his memory. In Friday Harbor, a memorial service was held in the high school auditorium.

However, the band played on. Electric-bass player Doug DeMeerleer, then a Woodinville resident, was invited to join the group. And they continued to perform their signature song.

“I was not on that record, ‘Elwha on the Rocks,’” DeMeerleer told me recently from his home in Friday Harbor. “But I sure played it a lot of times, ’cause every time we went to a jazz festival up here — remember the old jazz festivals they used to have up here all the time — I got to participate in several of those.”

“That band ended up playing a lot of festivals in Oregon and Washington, even after the Friday Harbor festival stopped happening.” He said the group disbanded in the early 2000s.

The Elwha story continued to pop up in the media. In December 1989 it gained a national audience when the Washington Post reported that the Washington State Board on Geographic Names had agreed to call the infamous reef near Grindstone Harbor “Elwha Rock” on state maps. The idea had first been floated by book dealer Greg Lange, a San Juan Islands history buff.

“Fittro’s Folly lives on,” said The Seattle Times.

The Elwha made the news again a year later while undergoing a major renovation at the South Terminal Pier in Everett. When hurricane-force winds rocked the Puget Sound in mid-December 1990, the renegade ferry partially broke free from her moorings and repeatedly slammed into the pier, shearing off about $400,000 worth of fender- and support piles and caving in “curtain” plating on one side of the ship. The steel plates had to be replaced. The ferry was out of service for about another year.

In January 1994, a cascade of mechanical failures apparently caused the ferry to lose control while approaching the Anacortes dock in the fog. Although the Elwha came through unscathed, she wiped out steel girders supporting the pedestrian walkway. The estimated damages? Another $250,000 to $500,000.

But wait. There’s more.

In July 1996, on a trip from Friday Harbor to Sidney, B.C., Elwha Captain Charles Petersen decided to take an alternate route around the southern end of San Juan Island. The detour was about 15 miles longer than the designated (northern) route and landed the ferry on an “obstruction” near Cattle Point. Petersen insisted the obstruction was nothing more than a submerged log, but the U.S. Coast Guard said a series of 10-foot-long gouges in the hull suggested a grounding.

Then, on September 8, 1999, the Elwha, traveling at an estimated seven knots, crashed into the ferry dock at Orcas Island.

“People at the dock were yelling for everybody to get off the dock. Then it just rammed the dock and the pilings started cracking,” Patty Cunningham, who worked at the nearby Orcas Hotel, told The Seattle Times. WSF officials blamed the crash on the failure of the propulsion-control system to reverse the ferry’s engines.

That Times article also included a litany of previous major Washington ferry mishaps. Of the nine most recent incidents it mentioned beginning with “Fittro’s Folly” in 1983, three involved the Elwha. The Orcas dock crash would have been number four. And the list didn’t include the carnage at Everett in 1990. Make that number five.

Repairs to the dock were expected to cost about $2.5 million. While WSF crews replaced the splintered pilings, Orcas passengers were dropped off at Shaw, then carried across Harney Channel on a smaller vessel.

It took until the middle of October to restore normal ferry service. In the meantime, workers managed to repair enough pilings and set the loading ramp in a fixed position so that Orcas vehicles could be accommodated — but only when the tide was just right.

The Elwha also earned a footnote in an incident involving another ferry. In September 1994, while traveling in fog near Orcas Island, the Nisqually was grounded for 40 minutes on Elwha Rock. Yep, that Elwha Rock.

Let’s give the Elwha her due. No one died in any of these mishaps. For more than half a century she faithfully delivered countless passengers and vehicles. She was also involved in at least two maritime rescues. But it took incidents such as Fittro’s Folly to make her a household name.

Billy Fittro died in Everett in September 2003. His obituary said he was the first instructional pilot for the Super Class ferries, which included the Elwha, the Hyak, the Kaleetan and the Yakima. It said nothing about the infamous incident in 1983.

Peggy Warrack died in Anacortes in January 2012. Unlike Fittro’s family, the Warrack family embraced her role in the Elwha incident. “Peggy took her own place in history with the grounding of the Elwha ferry when she was dubbed the ‘Siren of the San Juans,’” said her obituary.

After Peggy’s death, her daughter Judy inquired online about the ingredients of the famous cocktail so she could serve it at a celebration of her mother’s life.

On a June day in 2019, I watched from Front Street in Friday Harbor as my brother maneuvered his 24-foot trailer — backwards — onto the 51-year-old ferry for the trip to Sidney, B.C. I’m sure he didn’t know about her colorful past, but he may have wondered about her future.

As it turned out, the Ewha didn’t have much longer. Less than two months later, she was squeezing through the Ballard locks en route to the Lake Union Drydock for scheduled “maintenance”. However, the state legislature soon balked at spending another $10 million to repair the aging ferry’s steel decking.

Anacortes Mayor Laurie Gere expressed alarm that the loss of the Elwha would leave the WSF with only one ferry certified to serve the British Columbia route. She said it brought about $1.6 million a year in tax revenues to her city from motels and other tourist-related businesses. Nevertheless, in March 2020 the legislature passed a budget with no funding for the repairs. She had carried her last passenger.

There was no eulogy for the Elwha, and no wake other than the one she left in Puget Sound en route to the WSF maintenance facility at Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island. There she joined her Super Class sister ship, the better-behaved Hyak, which had been taken out of service in June 2019. Crews started cannibalizing her for parts to use in other ferries.

“She’s still at Eagle Harbor, at the tie-up slip at the Winslow dock,” ferry historian Steven J. Pickens told me in a recent email. “She’s been stripped out much the same way the Hyak has.”

The Elwha and the Hyak are survived by their sister ferries, the Kaleetan and the Yakima.

The remains of the two ferries are still awaiting their ultimate fate, whatever that may be.

May they rust in peace.