In 55 Years, MV Coho Has “Never Missed a Day!”
As I write this, it’s May and the boating season is well under way in the Pacific Northwest. For the most active sailboat racers, that means they are preparing for the Swiftsure Race—the biggest event in the yachting calendar. Planning began early in the year, to make sure the boat and all the crew would be on the start line in Victoria B.C. at the start of the Memorial Day Weekend. The boat needs to be delivered there well in advance, and the crew must have transport to Port Angeles and tickets on the MV Coho.
The ferry service between Port Angeles and Victoria may not have the glamor or the excitement of the annual Swiftsure, but its daily service has made it a fixture in the region’s boating scene. Besides the racing crews, it also carries kayakers on their way to Vancouver Island’s west coast, sports fisherman trailering their rigs to the north end, and cruisers keeping their yachts north of the border. For all of them, the Coho provides the shortest, quickest route, and avoids the long lines that can develop at the mainland border crossings.
The MV Coho has a remarkable history: built in 1959, it has been owned and operated by the Black Ball line for its entire 50-year career. During its half century of service, this little ship has transported an astonishing 21 million passengers and five million vehicles on its 22.5-nautical mile international crossing between Washington and British Columbia. In all that time it has never missed a sailing because of rough weather or mechanical failure!
For an ocean-going vessel to even reach the age of 50 is quite a landmark, since most end up at the breaker’s yard long before For the same privately-owned ship to spend its entire career under the same name,ownership and 90-minute route is nothing short of miraculous. To say this organization keeps a “low profile” is an understatement, but announcements and promotions about the birthday began appearing early in 2009, including a free ride for anyone with a birthday on the day of their trip. As 2009 came to an end, the Black Ball finally made the local news when it celebrated its 50th birthday.
The Last of the Mosquito Fleet
The Black Ball Ferry Line’s direct history dates further back than that—to 1936 when founder R.J. Acheson began a trucking business. After World War II, the peacetime economy boomed and the company expanded. With his wife Lois as a partner, Acheson acquired the first ship in 1952, just after the state of Washington took over the ferry service from the Puget Sound Navigation Company. (The PSNC continued running ferries in BC as the Black Ball Line until 1960.) The converted steamboat Iroquois ran an overnight freight service between Seattle, Port Townsend, Port Angeles and Victoria.
1955, they had developed the ambitious idea to begin an international ferry service across the Straits of Juan de Fuca. This new concept required a seagoing ship with the ability to roll on/roll off cars and trucks—a type that had never been tried on the west coast. The leading naval architects Philip F. Spaulding & Associates of Seattle were chosen to design the vessel, but several years passed while the Achesons arranged the financing, completed specifications for the ship, and acquired all the necessary permits. The keel of the Coho was laid Jan. 12, 1959 at Puget Sound Bridge and Drydock in south Seattle, with the goal of putting the 341′ ship into service during the summer.
Since this was an entirely new type of design, there were delays with deliveries of equipment and Inspections—and midway through the project, the yard was bought by Lockheed–so sea trials were only completed in December. Others might have waited until spring to start the service, but Acheson had absolute confidence that it would succeed, and he was raring to go! On the first day of service Dec. 29, 1959, the Coho was reported to have carried some 225 passengers and 60 vehicles, and patronage was noted to be “better than expected.” The official welcoming party included the mayor and the kilted members of the Victoria Girls’ Pipe Band.
The End of an Era
The Coho was the last of the big privately-owned ferries to be launched on the Salish Sea; within a few years it would become the sole survivor of the Mosquito Fleet. So it was fitting that it was a handsome vessel run by owners who didn’t cut corners, and was often referred to as “the Queen of Puget Sound.” Fifty years on, the Coho is still the best-looking ferry in the northwest and shows how efficient private ownership can be in the right hands. Yet the Coho offers something more than a fast convenient ride.
It provides a unique opportunity to cross open water on a ship that dates back to the golden age of sea travel and ocean liners—a time before container ships and aircraft revolutionized transportation. Before computer-aided design and modular construction, it took a team of naval architects, engineers and draftsmen to hand-draw all the detailed blueprints for a ship. Spaulding’s team drew the Coho with the specified cargo capacity and loading ports, but they also gave it a handsome somewhat streamlined profile.
Look closely and I think you will agree, from the rake of the bow all the way to the stern, the ship looks as seaworthy <i>and </i>modern today as it did 50 years ago. The house flows gracefully up to the bridge, there are no sharp edges to be seen, and even the smokestack seems perfectly proportioned. This was the result of an artistic touch in the design process, the tradition of details that distinguished one ship from another.
In those days, the capitol of British Columbia was still an important destination on the Pacific Rim. Steamers from many nations delivered their cargoes right into the heart of the city, and first-class passengers stepped off luxurious ocean liners literally on the doorstep of the historic Empress Hotel (built 1908) that majestically rises over the Inner Harbour.
That was all coming to an end by the early 1960s—but the Black Ball company continues the tradition, transporting approximately 400,000 passengers a year to the heart of the city. It is headquartered in Victoria, and employs more than 90 people during the peak season at its two terminals. (The passengers may not be quite so stylish today, but a study by the University of Victoria’s Faculty of Business concluded that the ferry service injects $124 million a year into the local economy.)
Black Ball Throws a Party!
Naturally, the big outdoor celebration took place in the summer, when the weather was suitable for a celebration on the Victoria docks, complete with U.S. and Canadian dignitaries, presentations and music.The real birthday cruise began after Christmas, and incorporated a forgotten part of Black Ball’s history—the overnight freight service across Puget Sound, when the Coho led a double life until 1973, working as a freighter six nights a week. (Black Ball Transport didn’t officially change its operating name to Black Ball Ferry Line until 2008.)
On Dec. 28, the ship detoured from its routine to visit Port Townsend where more than 2,000 people toured the ship during special dockside festivities. On the big day, Dec. 29, the birthday voyage crossed the Strait of Juan de Fuca with a large contingent of Washington State business, civic and government officials on board; and yes, there was a huge birthday cake!
Victoria Mayor Percy Scurrah and other local Canadian dignitaries were on hand to greet the ferry as it arrived in the city center. The mayor presented the ship’s captain with a Canadian Red Ensign which was immediately raised for the return trip that was fully booked! The Acheson’s achievement was honored at a special luncheon hosted by the Victoria Junior Chamber of Commerce at the Empress Hotel. “It harkens back to what that first day must have meant,” said Ryan Burles current CEO of Black Ball. “At the time it was a risky venture. but they never wavered in their determination. They believed in the tourism potential between Washington state and Vancouver Island, and time has proved them right.”
Up Close with the MV Coho
I rode the MV Coho myself last spring, but not specifically for this story: I too was using the ship for a boating project. I was returning from Victoria with a 40′ second-hand mast I had found via a classified ad in this magazine. Having concluded the purchase of the spar outside a marina in Sydney, loaded it up, and rushed down to the quay in two frantic hours, I was relieved to find my introduction to the Black Ball ferry’s unique service was from the friendly dock crew who didn’t fuss (or try to charge me extra!) over the spar that overhung the back of the truck.
They just arranged for us to board last through the door on the port side at the stern. I could finally stop fretting…and start exploring! Once the truck was parked, I climbed the stairs to the passenger deck, then headed out onto the side deck to watch the dock crew dropping the mooring lines. I could see the captain on the port bridge wing easing the ship away from the dock with practiced ease. (I had learned that the Coho was built before thrusters were even considered an option, so knew he was using just the twin propellers and rudders to turn the bow away from the dock.)
I walked to the stern to look back the Empress Hotel, which didn’t look quite so imposing from this lofty view point. The ship towered over the yachts moored around the basin, while the little water taxis continued to buzz across the inlet, crossing in front of the ship with practiced ease. The departure is traditionally marked by a blast of the ship’s whistle that must wake up any late sleepers in the hotel—or dozing politicians in the BC Parliament building!
As we glided through the Inner Harbour towering above the exclusive apartments and villas, passengers lined the port rail, and it really felt like a step back in time. Excuse my nostalgia–it reminded me of a scene from the kind of romantic movie they don’t make any more….. we passed through the 425′-wide narrows where there is no room for error and into the outer harbor, past the cruise ship terminal and breakwater to the straits.
The View from the Bridge
When we reached the open water, I realized it was time to get serious if I was truly going to write a story about the Coho. I needed to walk around the ship, find some noteworthy details, and<i> </i>take some pictures. That was a good beginning, but I knew it really wouldn’t be enough for a first-person story that would do the Coho justice. What I really needed was an invitation onto the bridge to meet the captain. That sounded pretty ambitious, but there was the hope that the 50<sup>th</sup> year celebration had temporarily loosened company policy.
So I straightened my ace reporter hat and strode confidently up to the purser’s desk, carrying a copy of NW Yachting. The purser was friendly but non-commital…… he told me he would have to check and went off to ask the captain. He returned five minutes later with the answer: I could go up to the bridge, but had to be finished before we closed the American coast. I followed him out onto the promenade, up the stairs to the upper deck. We passed the chain with the “Crew Only” sign and there I was–on the bridge wing with the straits spread out before me and the Olympic Mountains of Washington 20 nautical miles away.
I was welcomed onto the bridge by Captain Steven Banfill, who began our discussion by explaining to me how his ship continues to run so smoothly when other travel businesses often find themselves in rough water. The answer sounds old-fashioned—just like the design of the Coho: everyone who works for the ferry for more than a season or two picks up on the pride the older employees feel, a spirit that for many veterans amounts to a sense of being part of the “Black Ball family.”
Captain Banfill, who lives in Seattle, told me he has been with the company 42 years—a remarkable sea-going career that began when he was 16 and took a summer job as a porter in 1967. He came back the next year and began working his way up from ordinary seaman to first mate, a post he held for 25 years. He has been captain for the past five years—a position he shares one week on/one off with Captain Elmer Grasser.
The crew on duty typically consists of a captain, first mate and 4-5 seamen; in the engine room are the chief engineer, first assistant engineer and one oiler. In winter they make two round trips a day with about 15-16 crew. In summer, they make four round trips with 25 crew who work a maximum of 12 hours a day. Most of the crew come from Port Angeles, but many live aboard the ship (in the cabins behind the bridge) during their busy week on board. “We’re our own little city,” the captain remarked.
The sea was unusually smooth, almost no wind, and the sky clear on our crossing. Surprisingly, only one vessel was in sight: the tug <i>Ocean Ranger </i>with a barge in tow—probably on its way back from Alaska. The Coho often has several ships, yachts, fishboats and tugs all in view at the same time. Being English, I was reminded of the similarities between the straits and the Channel, which separates England and France. The Strait of Juan de Fuca is also a busy waterway, but on this particular Sunday, there was not a single ship in view.
All in a Day’s Work!
Like most of our readers, I consider myself lucky to get on the water once or twice a week in summer, and this felt like a peaceful afternoon to be out boating with some fabulous scenery as a backdrop. So I couldn’t help wondering what it was like to be a crew on the Coho covering the same route four times a day, seven days a week for over 40 years? I decided that was a fair if slightly impertinent question–one that you, my readers, might want to ask a ferry captain. Was there ever a feeling of a routine going back and forth between Washington and British Columbia? Does it ever get boring?
Captain Banfill smiled and gave a gracious and thoughtful answer: “Everybody has to go to work somewhere. Our office happens to cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca where the view is constantly changing and no two days are ever the same…….at the end of the north-bound trip, we have the beautiful city of Victoria, going south we have the Olympic mountains.” (Considering the magnificent scenery all over the waters of the Pacific Northwest, that answer could apply to most of the professional seamen in the region.)
Of course, it’s often the opposite of smooth sailing in the winter. So I continued our conversation by asking how rough it can get–and how the ship has managed to handle the worst weather on the straits. (There has been just one day the ship didn’t sail, but that was because all the roads were blocked by snow.) The winter southeasters are the worst, the captain told me. The overhang of the forward car deck will start to pound in a head sea, sending sheets of spray over the bow and onto the bridge. The passengers won’t be comfortable, and the heavy trucks on the car deck will start to slide.
The crew chock the trucks’ wheels if conditions are looking poor, and the officer on watch can make the decision to head the ferry off the direct course to avoid taking the seas on the beam, which accelerates rolling. The ship can literally “tack” across the straits like a sailboat, one tack bringing the seas closer to the bow, while the other tack brings them more astern. This adds 20-30 minutes to the 90-minute crossing.
December 15, 2008 was a day they all remembered, when the wind hit hurricane force, but the straits are (relatively) sheltered from southerly blasts and the seas never exceeded the 15′ height that the ship can safely handle. First Mate Greg Poole pointed out that fog is a more frequent problem than waves or wind. Poole is also a Coho veteran. He came aboard in 1980 as a seaman and uses the word “family” when describing the crew. Many of them are the second generation of their family on the ship, and they’ve got at least one summer employee who is third generation!
They are all proud of the Coho, and keep it in first-class shape, from polishing the brass to supervising the annual dry-docking for painting, underwater hull maintenance, and Coast Guard inspection every January/February. Because of its international route, the U.S.- flagged Coho is required to be SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) certified, so the bridge has been regularly upgraded with state-of-the-art navigation equipment, and the officers know they can rely on a well-trained crew. With the details of Port Angeles becoming visible, it was time for me to leave the bridge. It was a privilege to meet the officers, and I reluctantly made my way back down the stairs to the main deck.
I had just a few minutes left to look around the public areas. The first thing I noticed was that there was none of the trendy interior design that you find on the newer BC and Washington ferries. All the amenities were there, but set in a comfortable nautical decor, not looking like a mini mall. I stopped to photograph the polished brass builder’s plaque, then went outside–through the wide wooden door that looked like it might have been original–and onto the broad side deck. You can walk all the way around the ship on this deck, and get close to the bow on the spacious foredeck—one of the features that has disappeared on the northwest’s utilitarian modern ferries.
In Port Angeles, the Coho also has a tight berth to work into, again using only the twin screws and warps. The ship was first made up to a set of piles running east-west, then turned with a deck winch towards the shore to line up with the ramp for the forward door. I disembarked onto American soil via the starboard forward door and was soon through the US customs and off on the long journey back to Astoria.
The Coho is a commuter service for a few people, has hosted weddings, seen ashes scattered into the sea, and remains a route for transporting produce and lumber between Canada and the U.S. Through the winter, Canadian snowbirds start their journey south on the ship. The company says the community support both in Port Angeles and Victoria is outstanding. CEO Burles summed up the Coho’s philosophy by saying:”There’s never been too much hype. Our style has been reliability, affordability and not trying to be something we’re not. It has always been about maintaining this important link.”
Building the MV Coho
Fifty years ago, when the Coho was launched at <u>Puget Sound Bridge and Drydock (bought out by Lockheed , </u>yachts were built of wood, sails were cotton, and rope was hemp. Yachting has changed almost beyond recognition, but small ships less so. Indeed, the biggest change might be the value of the dollar: the Coho cost all of $3 million, compared to the $100 million bids tendered for the next Washington ferries.
M.V. Coho Specifications
Length: 341.5 feet
Beam 72 feet
Draft: 15 feet
Propellers: twin 8-foot diameter
Average sea speed: 15 knots
Capacity: 110 vehicles and 1,000 passengers
Range: 7.000 miles
The Coho’s original Cooper-Bessemer diesels engines were direct-reversing, meaning to obtain reverse, the engines had to be shut down and restarted in the opposite direction. The air tanks to pneumatically start the engines had the capacity for six restarts of the engine, requiring great skill on the part of the captain via the traditional engine telegraph from the bridge.
The old engines were replaced in 2004 by two General Motors Electro-Motive Division EMD 5,100/V-12 (locomotive) engines rated 2,550 BHP each at 900 rpm. Even with their Falk 2.75:1 reduction gears, they take up less space. Electrical power is generated by a pair of Cummins KTA19 250-kW gensets. The propellers are now stainless steel.
In addition to the engine refit, the Coho has undergone many improvements over the years, including additional seating, enlargement of the coffee shop, installation of a solarium, and a sewage treatment plant. The ship is drydocked every year, although the Coast Guard only requires this bi-annually. The ship’s annual dry docking took it out of service from Jan. 29 to Feb. 9. This year, the <em>Coho</em> went to Dakota Creek in Anacortes for the first time instead of Todd Pacific in Seattle.
Robert Acheson’s Lifetime in Transportation
R.J. Acheson, began his career in transportation at the age of 11 in Medicine Hat, Alberta with the Canadian Pacific Railway as a callboy, eventually becoming a dispatcher. In 1924, he decided to move to Seattle and first worked as a freight checker for the Nelson Steamship Company. He later became general manager, and in 1932 became traffic manager for Black Ball Line. He helped developed a piggy-back system to move freight into and around Puget Sound that was used by eleven cartage firms that united to to handle freight crossing the sound on Puget Sound Navigation ferries.
This company was acquired by Acheson in 1936, and became Black Ball Freight Service. In 1941, Lois Bates, a graduate of Oregon State College in business administration came to work at Black Ball’s office. She married and Bob Acheson a few years later and continued to work, becoming office manager and in 1948 vice-president.of the company. In the post-war years, most married women had returned to their traditional role as homemaker, and very few held executive positions. Yet Lois Acheson helped steer Black Ball’s freight service into new territory, and overcame many barriers in the business world.
By 1951, their operation included 200 trucks and trailers and employed 125 people. In 1952, the Achesons decided to add a marine service. They began Black Ball Transport Inc by purchasing Peabody’s terminals and his steamship <i>Iroquois</i>, which was converted to a motor freighter. With the arrival of the Coho, the Black Ball companies were able to provide an integrated freight and car ferry service.
Lois Acheson—Pioneering Businesswoman
Lois Acheson was a 1937 graduate of Oregon State College in business administration and admitted It was unusual, to say the least, for a woman to be head of a big firm in the rough and tumble transportation business. When her husband died unexpectedly in 1963, he was nationally known for his colorful leadership of northwest trucking and shipping circles. Lois took the helm of the company, and as the Port of Seattle newsletter reported: “She is by no means a figurehead. She is more than well qualified to fill her husband’s shoes.” But she did not feel out of place, she told the publication. She’s been a part of this “‘man’s world” for so long she feels completely at home.
In the spring of 1964. after years of doing business from historic Pier 53 in Seattle’s central waterfront, she moved Black Ball to a more spacious facility at Pier 30 in order to make room for the construction of the new Washington Stale ferry terminal. In 1975, she sold the trucking business to Roccor to focus on the ferry system. Lois Acheson had a life-long interest in animals and veterinary care. For many years, she built a scholarship fund to benefit OSU veterinary students.
When she died at the age of 89 in 2004, she bequeathed the ferry company as an endowment to the Oregon State University College of Veterinary medicine as part of a $21 million bequest–the second largest gift ever made to OSU. The College has renamed its teaching hospital, the Lois Bates Acheson Veterinary Teaching Hospital in her honor. “She always atributed her business success to her educational experience at Oregon State University,” said
Acheson’s niece Donna Schoen. “She would be pleased with the impact her gift will have on the continuing growth and development of the College of Veterinary Medicine.”
Origin of the Name Black Ball Line
Black Ball is a venerable shipping name that dates back to 1816, when Captain Charles Marshall’s fleet of clippers flew a black ball on a red flag on the New York to Liverpool run. The flag was revived by an ancestor in 1928, becoming a prominent ferry service on Washington and British Columbia waters until most of the assets were sold to the fledgling BC Ferries after a devastating strike.
In 1816 Captain Charles H. Marshall founded the Black Ball Line, the first scheduled transatlantic passenger service, employing a fleet of clipper ships, one of which was commanded by the founder’s brother Captain Alexander Marshall. This service operated for over 60 years between New York and Liverpool flying the house flag, which consisted of a black ball centered on a red background.
One hundred and twelve years later, Captain Alexander Marshall’s great grandson Captain Alexander Marshall Peabody chose the same flag for his fleet,the Puget Sound Navigation Company, which operated ferries on Puget Sound under the trade name Black Ball Line. Black Ball Line was at one time the nation’s largest privately owned ferry system, operating a fleet of steamboats and ferries in Washington and southern British Columbia.
Known colloquially as the Black Ball Line, the PSNC achieved a “virtual monopoly” on cross-sound traffic in the 1930s. These businesses were eventually sold to Washington State British Columbia which brought all ferries under state ownership. Captain Peabody retained five vessels, one destroyer escort, the rights to the Seattle-Victoria route and terminals in Seattle, Port Angeles and Victoria.