Congressman Larsen tours South Whidbey fire boat, harbor

On crutches, Congressman Rick Larsen, a Second District Democrat, tours South Whidbey Fire/EMS’ new fire boat Thursday at South Whidbey Harbor. Larsen was on crutches, having recently broken his ankle. - Justin Burnett / The Record
On crutches, Congressman Rick Larsen, a Second District Democrat, tours South Whidbey Fire/EMS’ new fire boat Thursday at South Whidbey Harbor. Larsen was on crutches, having recently broken his ankle.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

Congressman Rick Larsen spent much of Thursday on Whidbey Island, making stops in Langley, Central Whidbey and Oak Harbor.

The Second District Democrat started off the day touring South Whidbey Fire/EMS’s new emergency response vessel. The nearly $500,000, 32-foot aluminum catamaran was built primarily with federal grant funds, which Larsen helped secure.

“I think they’ve done a great job,” said Larsen, referring to the vessel’s builder, North Cross Aluminum in Freeland. “Of course the proof is in the pudding, but the pudding looks like it’s settling quite nicely.”

Larsen arrived to a contingent of awaiting fire district, Port of South Whidbey and North Cross Aluminum officials and employees. He surprised a few by stepping out of the car and into crutches. The federal lawmaker recently fell from a roof and broke his ankle.

His handicap didn’t stop him, however, from hopping aboard and taking a ride on the new vessel. Powered by twin 450-horsepower engines, the boat performed nicely and brought Larsen and the throng of officials safely back to South Whidbey Harbor.

There he passed out a healthy round of handshakes and posed for a few pictures before zooming off for his next appointment. While Larsen’s visit was brief, lasting about one hour, South Whidbey officials were grateful he took the time to see the vessel in person.

“We very much appreciate federal funding with this project,” Fire Chief Rusty Palmer said. “This boat wouldn’t exist without it.”

“Everybody in the U.S. paid for this boat, which takes the whole burden off local taxpayers,” he added.

The money came from a Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, grant. The Port of South Whidbey was the primary applicant with the fire district being a partner/beneficiary.

Port officials were having trouble securing the grant funding and contacted Larsen’s office for help. The congressman agreed and it wasn’t long before the port got its money, and the fire district its boat.

Larsen said urban areas have received the lion’s share of related grant funding and that he was happy to help a small rural agency get a piece of the pie.

Palmer also noted that the fire boat is no extravagance or expensive toy, but rather is a needed asset.

“Last year we responded to more marine incidents than we did actual fires,” he said.

That breaks down to 34 marine rescues and 13 actual fires. The fire district does have a 15-foot rigid inflatable boat stationed in Langley, but its launching can be limited by low tides.

Once the new boat is complete, it will be permanently moored at South Whidbey Harbor and the smaller craft moved to Freeland.

Port Commissioner Curt Gordon attended the event and didn’t waste the opportunity of a direct audience with Larsen. He quizzed the lawmaker about the prospects of federal funding for later phases of the South Whidbey Harbor expansion project.

“We don’t have a lot of dough,” said Gordon, in a later interview. “If we’re going to build this, we’re going to do it with grant funding.”

Larsen didn’t make any promises, but did encourage the port to apply for grant funding, Gordon said.

Tim Leonard, owner of North Cross Aluminum, was present at the showing, but declined to comment.

While the boat has been finished and in the water for weeks, a few remaining hiccups with some of the vessel’s equipment, such as dialing in the engines, have prevented the fire district from taking possession of the vessel.

According to Palmer, the fire district will do a check-off list inspection this weekend and he expects to take official possession sometime next week.

The boat’s name is being decided with a contest at South Whidbey schools. Once it’s selected, the winner and their family will be invited aboard for a ride and the vessel will be christened in a public ceremony. At that time, the public will also be allowed to tour the vessel.

“It’s their boat,” Palmer said. “The fire district is the steward, but the public is the owner.”


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