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No one hurt in ferry grounding

Todd Brunner, left, and Jerry Banta pull one of the ferry Quinault
Todd Brunner, left, and Jerry Banta pull one of the ferry Quinault's runabouts into shore to allow a Coast Guard captain aboard. The crew of the Quinault then winched the boat aboard. This was the only way to get on or off the ferry during Thursday's grounding.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

The Port Townsend-Keystone ferry run usually takes about 30 minutes. But for 107 passengers Thursday, the run took almost seven hours.

A few hundred yards from the Keystone dock and about 25 yards off the beach, the ferry Quinault ran aground in a dense fog, giving both the passengers on the 8 a.m. run and campers at Fort Casey State Park a jolting surprise.

Camper Dave Parrish could hardly believe what he saw.

"We heard a horn honk and thought the ferry was coming in," he said. "We didn't see the ferry, so I jumped on my bike and rode around the bushes. There it was, stuck."

It took until about 2:45 p.m. for a tugboat to reach the dock and pull the Quinault off the sand bar, where it sat high centered on its keel most of the day. But even after all those hours and an inspection by Coast Guard officials, Washington State Ferries was not offering an explanation of the grounding, nor was it giving out the name of the captain at the helm.

The mood was mostly that of surprise and bemusement over the incident, a mood summed up by WSF customer service agent Larry Keys about 20 minutes after he heard news of the grounding.

"It doesn't happen very often," he said.

Joe Nortz, director of operations for WSF was on his way to a Ferry Advisory Committee meeting in Anacortes when he was diverted to Keystone. After looking over the scene of the grounding, he said no one will know exactly what happens until WSF completes an investigation. Nortz did say "low visibility and currents were likely culprits."

Fortunately for those on board, the long wait to dock was their only real concern.

"No one was hurt and hopefully absolutely nothing is wrong and the ferry will float free when the tide changes," Nortz said.

Nothing was and it did, with the help of the tug boat. In the meantime, the passengers had nothing to do but wait and wave to TV helicopters and people on the shore.

The people on shore had a good time with the incident. Barbara Ballard and her husband, Richard Doyle, of Coupeville, came down to Keystone with a friend from Germany to see what was happening.

"He just commented, 'You always have such fun, interesting things for me to do and see when I'm here.' " Ballard said. "This is a biggest news in years for Coupeville. It's nice to have a disaster with no one hurt."

The grounding may have been a harbinger of things to come. WSF is studying an idea to move the Keystone dock from its current location to address the problems Nortz cited as possible causes of Thursday's grounding. The ferry system is looking for a dock site that is in deeper water and that has a wider inlet that will accommodate larger boats.

The wait was not only a long one aboard the Quinault, but in the waiting ferry line on the dock as well. Mike West of Lagoon Point needed to get to Port Townsend to work on a boat. He was philosophical during his long wait.

"If I don't get there today, I'll make it tomorrow," he said.

Had anyone been hurt aboard the ferry, the 20 feet of shallow water that separated the boat from shore was easily forded. It also helped that there was a doctor on board. Emergency room doctor Robert Rookstool was commuting home on the Quinault when it got stuck. He said he was impressed with the work of the boat's crew in the midst of a frustrating situation.

"The crew had a long day," he said. "They did all they could do. Now I just want to ride home."

Michael Atkins of Port Ludlow was also aboard. He said the passengers took the grounding in stride.

"Everyone was calm and nice," he said. "We got free coffee and understood there was nothing to do but wait."

After divers inspected the Quinault's hull, the Coast Guard cleared the ferry for service for the remainder of the day.

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