Giant wave tilts Keystone ferry, damages ship

The rouge wave damaged the inside of the ferry and left passengers frightened. - Walter Dill photo
The rouge wave damaged the inside of the ferry and left passengers frightened.
— image credit: Walter Dill photo

It will take more than a deep breath for sisters Celina and Twyla Dill to stay calm when they board the Port Townsend ferry to visit their mother next weekend.

The two students from Freeland, along with their father, Walter Dill, were aboard the Snohomish passenger ferry on Friday when an encounter with a violent wave pushed the vessel under water and gallons of seawater streamed into the cabin.

“I really thought I was going to die,” said Celina, 12. “I was sitting facing my sister and Janice, a friend. I saw their faces. I turned around and all I saw was the dark blue water. Then the ceiling collapsed.

“It was my worst nightmare,” she said.

During the 5:05 p.m. crossing from Port Townsend to Whidbey Island on Feb. 1, the ferry plunged through a wave caused by the wake of a large southbound container ship passing through Admiralty Inlet, Walter Dill said. The boat tilted to a 20-degree angle and water shot into the cabin.

Ferry officials, however, said that it was a weather-related incident.

Traci Brewer-Rogstad, deputy director of Washington State Ferries, said the combination of rough seas, westerly winds and the freighter wake caused the incident.

She said a rogue wave hit the small ferry.

“Swells from two different directions hit the ferry, add in the freighter — it put a significant portion of the vessel under water,” Brewer-Rogstad said.

However, the ferry did try to get behind the freighter.

“It typically allows for smoother sailing,” she said.

Crossings can be rough on the Keystone-Port Townsend route.

“It’s not necessarily uncommon for this route this time of the year,” Brewer-Rogstad said.

Dill disagrees. He said seas were calm.

“The weather was relatively calm,” he said. “The swells were maybe one or two feet.”

“There is no chance that a rogue wave could have hit us,” Dill said.

Instead of heading toward the Keystone ferry dock, the captain turned south at a high rate of speed and followed the freighter, Dill recalled.

“We were actually getting quite close to the freighter — with it being slightly to the right of the ferry,” he said.

“The bizarre thing was as we were getting closer to the freighter, we turned right,” Dill said. “And we were talking about that. ‘Now why are they doing that?’ This wasn’t making any sense.”

“We were joking, ‘Twyla, tell the captain to turn left,’” Dill said. The outspoken 15-year-old called out to the captain, but the boat turned further right.

“Then it happened,” Dill said. “A huge wave engulfed the front of the ferry and it went nose down.”

Once the ferry tilted, time appeared to stand still. The entire front of the boat was engulfed in dark green water, Dill said.

“Then things started breaking and exploding,” he recalled. “The ceiling at the front of the ferry caved in and water gushed in. People were screaming and running up to the back of the boat. A lot of people were crying,” he said.

“We all thought we were dead.”

Twyla said she didn’t think much at all and simply reacted.

“At the time it didn’t register,” she said. “I saw the water and took off running.”

Passenger Brooklyn Bauer of Forks was on the ferry from the peninsula for the first time.

“I’d never been on the ferry. We were playing cards. My friend said ‘I really like the way the waves feel,’” she said, adding that small waves rocked the boat gently. But then she noticed other passengers getting nervous.

Two minutes later, the wave hit.

“My friend started running. I just sat there in shock,” Bauer recalled.

Once the wave passed, Walter Dill said a young ferry worker came around to ask the passengers if they were OK, but that was the only contact the crew made with the passengers after the scare.

“The captain was nowhere to be seen,” Dill said.

The captain announced that the boat was OK and that the crossing would continue, Dill said.

Dill said he is disappointed that ferry officials have not contacted him even though he sent them an e-mail Saturday informing them of the incident.

“Not a word,” he said.

The ferry sustained minor damage and was taken out of service for the rest of the day.

“Some water went in the carpet. It pushed in ceiling tiles,” Brewer-Rogstad said. “The alarm system went off. That contributed to the scary situation. Obviously people were freaked out.”

Crossings were canceled for that day “due to weather.” The Snohomish was back in service the next morning.

Brewer-Rogstad said the Coast Guard also came out to investigate.

“It was a scary event, but our crews are trained to find the quickest and safest way out,” she said. “While rough seas are not hugely uncommon on this route, it’s a much different experience on the much smaller vessel.”

Puget Sound Express out of Hudson Point Marina has been providing service until the Steilacoom II takes over the route. The Snohomish passenger ferry was put on the route to replace the 80-year-old Steel Electric class car ferry that was taken out of the water for safety reasons in November.

On Monday, Feb. 4, the Steilacoom II begun crew familiarization and training operations on the Port Townsend-Keystone route. The state is leasing the 50-car vessel from Pierce County to serve the route between Whidbey and the peninsula.

Ferry officials are working hard to return vehicle ferry service to the Port Townsend-Keystone route as soon as possible, Brewer-Rogstad said.

Crew training will last approximately one week and vehicle ferry service with the Steilacoom II is expected to resume in early February.

An exact service date will be announced later.

Celina and Twyla Dill can’t wait for the bigger ferry to go into service.

Celina said she isn’t looking forward to next Saturday when she and her sister will take their next trip to see their mom.

“I just want to ride the big ferry,” she said.

Twyla said she’ll be able to handle the trip — after all she has made the crossing many times — unless the weather is rough.

“I am already afraid of small boats, but I never had a reason why,” Twyla said. “Now I have a reason.”

Michaela Marx Wheatley can be reached at 221-5300 or

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