By Noah Haglund
To many people here on Whidbey Island, Washington state's newest ferry is more than just a ship.
The Tokitae, as it's called, is the fruit of their labor in a local shipyard. It promises riders slightly shorter ferry lines. And it's a floating awareness campaign for endangered resident orca whales.
Hundreds of admirers stopped by the Tokitae, docked at the Clinton Ferry Terminal, for a welcoming ceremony on Sunday.
"Now we are breathing life into the steel and giving it a soul and making it a ship," interim state ferries director Capt. George Capacci said.
Transportation officials and shipbuilders offered up applause lines to an audience gathered on the car deck. Members of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and Samish Indian Nation performed blessings.
The Tokitae is scheduled to start sailing this summer, as part of the state's 23-ferry fleet.
The $144 million ship was christened in March at Vigor Industrial in Seattle. While Vigor built the hull, much of the structure above deck took shape at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in Freeland, a short drive from the Clinton Ferry Terminal.
Numerous other contractors had pieces of the job. All told, about 500 workers participated.
Walk up the steps from the Tokitae's car deck, not yet reddened by rust or blackened by exhaust, and you start to notice differences from the current fleet.
The angle of the stairs is more gentle, making for an easier climb. The stairwell gives ample space for people to pass in either direction. As a fire-proofing measure, the corridor is walled off from the car decks.
The new ferry promises to be more efficient, easier to maneuver, safer and cheaper to maintain than any others in the state fleet, said Chris Morgan, a vice president with Vigor.
The 144-car Olympic Class vessel will replace the Cathlamet, which is being moved to the Vashon Island route so the state can retire a ferry built in the 1950s.
"We build these vessels for a 60-year life cycle," Capacci said. "It will allow us to replace some of the vessels that are 60 years old."
The Tokitae is the first of three planned vessels in the new Olympic Class. The Tokitae took two years to build. The next boat, the Samish, is under construction and scheduled to be finished in spring 2015. The third boat was funded just this year.
The Tokitae has two diesel engines that crank out 6,000 horsepower. At 362 feet, 3 inches long, it has space for up to 1,500 people.
Mukilteo is getting the Tokitae because more cars travel on that route than any other in the system — more than 2 million last year, according to state transportation officials.
The new vessel will hold 20 more cars than the 124-car Cathlamet.
A Whidbey Island couple in their 50s stood in line to tour one of the Tokitae's two wheelhouses on Sunday.
"We really do appreciate it and what it's going to do for us on the island," Steve Sloan said.
They hope the added car capacity will cut down on time spent waiting to drive on.
"We sat in a two-hour ferry line yesterday," Tammi Sloan said.
The Tokitae's wider main tunnel also will accommodate more trucks or motor homes.
Open passenger decks at each end of the new ferry will be larger, each about half the size of a regulation tennis court, said Broch Bender, a state ferries spokeswoman.
Visitors for the Tokitae's open house were able to tour a sun deck, which won't be open to passengers during regular service. The ferry system can only afford to staff the runs with a 12-person crew, given current passenger volumes, Bender said. Using the sun deck would require two more crew members.
"Initially it will be closed," Bender said. "If more funding arises, we will open it."
The Tokitae's name comes from a Coast Salish greeting meaning, "nice day, pretty colors."
A state commission picked it in 2012 to honor an orca whale captured in Penn Cove off Whidbey Island. Caught in 1970, Tokitae the whale was taken to a Miami sea park, where she has performed for audiences under the name Lolita.
Lolita is the subject of a multi-year dispute between animal rights activists and the privately owned Miami Seaquarium. Activists have petitioned the government to list her under the Endangered Species Act.
A Whidbey-based whale-advocacy group called Orca Network suggested the ferry's name.
"She's Lolita now, because she's performing," said Howard Garrett, the network's founder. "When we bring her back, she will be Tokitae; she'll be Lolita no more."
In a broader sense, the network hopes the new ferry's name will raise awareness about troubled orca populations in Puget Sound.
"It just opens the window to the whale's presence in these waters so people will know they live here and appreciate that they live here and will want to help them continue to live here," Garrett said.
The Tokitae is the fourth new ferry built in six years. The three other boats — the Chetzemoka, the Salish and the Kennewick — were built after the 1920s-era Steel Electric Class boats were pulled from the water in 2007 after cracks and corrosion were found in their hulls.
The 124-car Kittitas will continue as the second vessel on the Clinton-to-Mukilteo route.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.