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MV Coho Capt. Steve Banfill stands on the bridge of the ferry next to the wooden wheel that steers the vessel. A mixture of old and new equipment keeps the 50-year-old ship on track. -- Photo by Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News

MV Coho to celebrate golden anniversary

PORT ANGELES — The MV Coho celebrates its golden anniversary on Tuesday after plying more than two million total miles between Port Angeles and Victoria on the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Passengers crossing the Strait’s international border aboard the Victoria-based Black Ball Ferry Line vessel will be offered free cake and refreshments to honor the Coho’s maiden commercial sailing on Dec. 29, 1959 — back when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president.

“We were talking about playing ‘Happy Birthday,’ or something like that,” said Steve Banfill, 59, one of the vessel’s two captains, as he stood last week on Coho’s darkened, empty car deck after the vessel disgorged 60 cars and about 120 holiday-season passengers from Victoria.

All year, Port Angeles and Victoria have waxed appreciative of the stoutly built ferry, two communities celebrating the Coho’s lifeline-like impact on two cities and two nations.

That impact includes a half-century of carrying more than 21 million passengers a total distance that’s the equivalent of 82 times around the world on 88,000 crossings — with only a half-dozen canceled sailings in all that time, said company CEO and president Ryan Burles of Victoria, who succeeded Wayne Barrett of Port Angeles in 2007.

In Port Angeles, the yearlong feting included a Port Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce luncheon meeting in May that featured Burles as the main speaker, a ship-shaped cake for dessert — and the singing of “Happy Birthday.”

The year’s activities also included the 341-foot Coho being escorted into Port Angeles Harbor by a tugboat arching a firehose spray in a bow to the Coho’s staunch reliability and longevity, said Rian Anderson, Black Ball’s Port Angeles district manager.

“We’ve used the whole year to kind of recognize it,” Anderson said, adding an employee reunion party with 350 participants was held in Victoria.

Brings many visitors

Passengers aboard the1,000-passsenger, 120-vehicle Coho and the Victoria Express and Victoria Express II — two smaller, passenger-only vessels operated by a separate company that also offers trips to Victoria and back from Port Angeles and have 149-passenger capacities — account for 20 percent to 25 percent of overnight stays in Port Angeles, said Russ Veenema, executive director of the Port Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce.

He suggested it’s hard to overstate the economic importance of the Coho, which carries an estimated 400,000 passengers a year to and from Port Angeles.

“It’s been a phenomenal player, not only in attracting several hundred thousand people to our area, which brings in room stays and spending to our area, but it also helps create awareness of the Olympic Peninsula and Port Angeles on a national and international level,” Veenema said.

Banfill was 16 when he started as a porter on the Coho, just eight years after the ferry went into service.

It’s a company tradition for employees to spend decades working for the company, said Barrett, who retired in 2007.

“A lot of guys that started in high school as summer employees ended up retiring off the boat,” he said.

“We always take pride in taking care of that boat,” Barrett said. “It’s like a person. You take care of a person, and a person will take care of matters.”

Carried freight

When Black Ball Transport, a company with roots dating to 1816, built the Coho for $3.15 million, the ship also carried freight trucks among Seattle, Port Angeles, Port Townsend and Victoria for Black Ball Freight Service in the pre-Hood Canal Bridge days. It was the most expensive privately built ferry of its time.

The vessel, which includes living quarters for two dozen crew who work seven days on, seven days off, replaced the state ferry MV Kalakala on the Victoria-Port Angeles run. It ended freight service in 1973.

In recent years, Black Ball has added a gift shop, expanded the duty-free shop, installed an onboard sewage treatment plant next to the engine room, and converted the top deck, once the company owner’s quarters, into a passenger sun deck.

(For more information on the early history of the Coho, go to www.cohoferry.com ).

Other more procedural changes include tighter security prompted by the 9/11 terrorists attacks on the United States — mainly the requirement of passengers to show identification proving date of birth, such as a passport, birth certificate or enhanced drivers license.

During a tour of the vessel last week led by Banfill and Anderson, the crew’s galley smelled of turkey dinners.

A box of Christmas cookies sat on the kitchen counter.

When first built, he Coho was unusual for offering above-deck crew quarters, Barrett said.

‘Appreciate life’

Black Ball Freight Service owner R.J. Acheson “said the crew should be topside, where they could appreciate life,” Barrett said.

The crew’s quarters lead directly to the wheelhouse, sparsely appointed by computer-age standards.

“This is a real simple wheelhouse as opposed to a lot of ships that have all sorts of electrical things,” Banfill said, adding that occasionally it takes time for him to adjust to steering his car once he’s off duty.

“Most of the ship has been here 50 years.”

Not so with the radar controls.

Banfill punched a few buttons connected to a copier-sized box as he tracked a ship 20 miles away headed for BP oil company’s Cherry Point refinery near Anacortes.

From his perch in the wheelhouse, Banfill gave instructions to the engine room, down more than two dozen narrow, winding steps in the belly of the ship.

There, the ever-present hum heard throughout the rest of the ship became a prescient clatter.

The sound morphs into a deafening cacophony when the Coho is going full steam, said engine room crewman Richard Colleen, who tended to a pump.

Colleen pressed a green button, about the size of a quarter, that revs up each of the Coho’s two, 2,550-horsepower engines, which still radiated heat from the run to Victoria.

Later, standing on the car deck, Banfill said when he started working on the Coho as a teenager, more passengers took car vacations, their vehicles loaded with luggage.

People also showed appreciation for their trip aboard the Coho in more visible ways.

“When I was a porter, there would be little ladies with bags who would give you a little quarter tip, things like that,” Banfill said.

“Nobody tips anymore.”

But unlike Seattle-area ferry commuters, who grumble about wait times and traffic delays, Coho travelers have acted for 50 years like their 90-minute ride is golden.

“Not too many people complain,” Banfill said.

________

Staff writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-417-3536 or at [email protected]

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