The ferry Coho: A half century of crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca

the route of Coho takes it across the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Port Angeles, Wash., and Victoria, British Columbia.

Governments in both Washington State and British Columbia regularly debate (and often lament) the costs and designs of new vessels. Meanwhile, a venerable ferry continues a half-century tradition of linking the two jurisdictions with a run across the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Port Angeles, Wash., and Victoria, British Columbia.

Privately owned for most of its 50-year career, the Black Ball Ferry Line’s 1,000-passenger, 115-car ferry Coho is now part of an endowment of Oregon State University. The 341-by-72-foot ferry was designed by noted Seattle naval architect Philip Spaulding in that time before boxy practicalities had superseded good looks in naval architecture. She has a nice rake to her bow with a pleasing flow to her wheelhouse and bridge wings that follows aft to a ship’s stern that incorporates an automobile-loading door. Port and starboard loading doors are provided well forward on the hull. Altogether she is a pleasing little ship.

The ship’s crews are her biggest fans. On a late December round trip out of Victoria, under the command of Capt. Elmer Grasser, this was much in evidence. Pride in the ship is evident in the polished brass from wheelhouse to engine room and the in-depth knowledge of the vessel’s history exhibited by the crew.

Grasser clarified some confusion over the Black Ball corporate history. The Black Ball name and flag date to 1816 and clipper ships with the founding of the first scheduled trans-Atlantic passenger service. Over 100 years later, in 1928, Capt. Peabody, the great grandson of the founder of that trans-Atlantic service, founded his own Black Ball Line in Puget Sound with a similar flag. This company operated ferries in both Washington State and much later in British Columbia. Both those businesses were eventually sold to governments in the form of Washington State Ferries and BC Ferries.

In 1936, Robert Acheson had purchased a trucking division, Black Ball Freight Service, from Black Ball Line; and in 1952, he and his wife Lois organized Black Ball Transport Inc. It was for this couple’s company that Coho was built at Puget Sound Bridge and Dry Dock in 1959. Permission was granted for the new vessel, named Coho after one of five species of Pacific salmon, to fly a slightly modified version of the Black Ball flag incorporating a thin white line around the black ball on its red background.

As commissioned, the new vessel was powered by a pair of direct reversing Cooper-Bessemer diesel engines each rated at 2,080 bhp. Bridge-to-engine-room controls featured brass telegraphs. Until the original engines were replaced in 2004 with geared General Motors EMDs, putting the engines into reverse required that they be shut down and then restarted. That meant the docking of the ship required extra skill on the part of the captain, since the ship’s air supply allowed for a maximum of six restarts of the engine.

Until the new engines were installed, when entering the confined space of Victoria’s Inner Harbour, Grasser could manage with only one stop and start before the final command “finished with engines" was rung down to the engine room.

Capt. Elmer K. Grasser has the conn while Quartermaster Ben Rowland steers the ship as it leaves Victoria.

Departing the Inner Harbour pier requires a bit more maneuvering, as the ship is backed out and turned in the spectacularly picturesque harbour with the provincial legislative buildings to one side and several grand hotels and condominiums on the other sides. A great many yacht and fishing-boat moorings and a constant stream of float planes commuting between Victoria and Vancouver add to the confusion. The less maneuverable marine traffic has the right of way and the planes are dispatched in such a manner as to avoid the shipping that includes various workboats and the high-speed Seattle bound Victoria Clippers.

Busy as the Inner Harbour is, Coho’s safety record is impeccable, and a recent suggestion to move the dock out of the harbor was met with overwhelming citizen protest. The twin propellers and 25°, or even 35°, on the good rudders make the ship handle well under the direction of an experienced master and an able helmsman. On this voyage the helmsman was Quartermaster Ben Rowland. All ABs aboard take their turn at the wheel, while the most senior or experienced is designated quartermaster and handles the helm for dockings.

After the ship turned in the confines of the harbor, it glided through the 425-foot-wide narrows into the rock- strewn outer harbor. With over 10 feet of tidal rise, currents can add to the challenges. Although this scheduled transit can be done several times a day, depending on the season, attention on the bridge remains focused on the job at hand.

From a westerly course, Grasser ordered a southerly course to take the ship out past the cruise ship terminals and breakwater to the open sea. This first two and a half miles of the voyage had taken a little over 15 minutes. Grasser rang “full ahead" on the brass telegraph and the digital readout on the GPS climbed to 15 knots, as a relief helmsman took the ship’s traditional wooden wheel. There is no autopilot on Coho in the belief that passenger vessels deserve the fullest attention of the bridge crew at all times.

Above, when entering Victoria’s Inner Harbour, the ship has to make its way past a variety of craft, including float planes. Until the ship got new engines several years ago, reversing the propellers requried the crew to stop and then restart the engines. As a result, the crew learned to dock and undock with a minimum of maneuvering.

The snow squalls that had been plaguing Coho the previous few days were replaced by a freshening front blowing in from the Pacific with 30-knot westerly winds. The 20-mile crossing, like the English Channel crossing, intersects both inbound and outbound deep-sea shipping lanes. This is routine and not a great problem, but cause for attention nonetheless.

Chief Mate James Mackrow and AB Mark Smith took over wheelhouse duties for the crossing. Mackrow was no less enthusiastic about the ship and the company than the others. Grasser had explained how, following the death of Acheson in 1963, shortly after Coho was commissioned, his wife Lois kept up spending to maintain the ship and support the crews. Mackrow picked up the story and explained that when Lois died at the age of 89 in 2004, she left the company as an endowment to the University of Oregon.

The crew and shore staffs maintain a “family" relation, but a good many are literally family. Smith’s father worked for the company. Smith himself has now put in over 30 years on Coho, and his son has worked some summers.

The unlicensed deck crew belong to the Inland Boatman’s Union, the deck officers to the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, while the engine-room officers are represented by the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association.

In addition to crossing the traffic zones, Coho’s route also crosses the Canada-U.S. border. At 1120, 45 minutes into the trip, Coho crossed into the United States and Mackrow switched the VHF from Victoria to Seattle. Two U.S. Coast Guard vessels skipped off the wave tops like dolphins to escort the ferry the last miles to her homeport. Grasser came back on the bridge and explained that because of the international nature of her route, the U.S.- flagged Coho is required to be Safety of Life at Sea certified. The helmsman had been steering a 175° course for most of the crossing. Now, with the long current-built, riprap-reinforced spit that protects Port Angeles in view, an order was passed for a course change to 185°. This would bring Coho up into the freshening westerly and align her for her southern terminus.

As in Victoria, there was a bare minimum of reversing and maneuvering, perhaps as a holdover from the direct- reversing era, when availability of air-controlled stops and starts was limited.

The wind had been on the starboard side for most of the crossing, and even with the protection of the low spit, it could cause a sideways drift as the headway was taken off at 1155 for the approach.

Chief Engineer Steve Jovanovich stands next to one of the EMD V12 645 engines rated at 2,550 hp each.

Again working with Quartermaster Rowland, Grasser directed operations from the bridge wing with a bare minimum of commands to Rowland or telegraphed signals to the engine room. The ship was brought up to a set of piles where a spring line was made off from the port bow. This was then used to swing the stern 45° so that a touch of reverse brought the stern ramp in place for the cars to exit while foot passengers disembarked via a gangway from the foredeck. Finally Grasser rang “finished with engines" on the telegraph.

With the two EMD V-12 645 mains shut down, Chief Engineer Steve Jovanovich and First Engineer Jon Anderson had time to show a guest around their lair. The EMDs, rated for 2,550 hp each at 900 rpm, and their Falk 2.75:1 gears are smaller than the engines that they replaced, making the engine room even roomier.

One corner is filled with a large lathe and well-equipped tool bench. Forward a large steam boiler is used to heat the passenger spaces, while a pair of Cummins KTA19-powered 250-kW generators occupy another corner. The centerpiece is the control center set between the two engines. Two brass telegraphs mirror the two sides of the bridge telegraphs. When maneuvering, the two engineers each man a telegraph and relay the bridge orders to new ZF engine controls. Forward of the engine room, a pair of large tanks handle sewage treatment for the 1,000-passenger vessel.

By the time of the 1400 departure northbound to Victoria, a flood tide was adding to the steadily building swells running in from the open Pacific and fueled by a 35-knot westerly wind. The large flare of the sponsons from the forward car deck can bound in a sea.

In addition to passenger comfort, the bridge had to take into consideration the heavy trucks on the car deck. To ease the ship’s passage through individual waves, the helmsman worked the wheel. The decision to take a weather course is the bridge officers’ call, as was done this day with a double tack. The first tack allowed the ship to move the direction of seas closer to the bow quarter to reduce the ship’s roll. The second tack took the ship on a course that allowed more of a following sea, with similar effect on roll.

During a crossing from Port Angeles to Victoria, the ship encountered heavy weather with winds of about 30 knots.

In spite of the course adjustment and helmsman’s care, there were still seas sending sheets of spray over the bow and onto the bridge. This did not deter several passengers who danced with the spray and dodged behind the bulwarks for shelter from the 44° water.

“It is the winter southeasters that we really have to watch out for," said Grasser. “If you don’t steer wide enough or make two tacks, you will end up on Constance Bank outside of Victoria Harbour, which comes up to eight fathoms and the seas can really build there."

By 1520 the sun had torn a hole in the overcast sky and was brightening the white caps, while making a rainbow for the helmsman to steer to. Grasser called Vessel Traffic Services to announce that he was about to enter Victoria Harbour. Two minutes later he telegraphed the engine room for “standby." Then, as he passed Shoal Point, he rang for “slow" and directed the helmsman to make the 30° turn to line up for the pass into the Inner Harbour. At 1528 he rang for “dead slow" with the gyro showing 91° and condominiums appearing close enough to touch out both sides of the wheelhouse.

Unloading cars in Victoria. The ferry has a capacity of 115 vehicles and 1,000 passengers.

Another two minutes and the ship was through the pass and the quartermaster put on 30° of starboard rudder, then responded to the captain’s call for “midship," followed by “left 20" and “ease to 10." He rang for “dead slow ahead" on the starboard engine and “slow astern" on the port engine.

This series of commands brought Coho neatly alongside her Victoria pier so that with the lines up at 1535, Grasser was able to ring the engine room telegraph at 1537 “finished with engines," and Black Ball Ferry’s Coho had completed another round trip across the Straits of Juan de Fuca. •

By Professional Mariner Staff