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Boilermakers keep Washington’s ferry fleet afloat

The work [Boilermakers] do here is so important to the state of Washington, getting people back and forth safely—they don’t take this stuff lightly.

Bill Michael, Operations Manager at Eagle Harbor Maintenance Facility

Seattle is well known for its coffee, its Space Needle, its hipster scene and cool vibes, world class sports teams, great music and the city’s stunning natural backdrops of the Olympic and Cascade mountains and iconic Mt. Rainier. 

Seattle is also known for Puget Sound, the Pacific waterway that separates the city from popular islands and other land area destinations—which is why the Washington State Ferries system imperative to life and travel in the area. 

With all that it has to offer, Seattle attracts a lot of people—residents and tourists alike—who depend on ferries. According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, 17.3 million people used the ferry system in 2021 (about 75% of the ridership from pre-pandemic times). 

And at the Eagle Harbor Maintenance Facility on Bainbridge Island some six miles across the water from Seattle, Boilermakers from Local 104 (Seattle) make sure the ferry fleet is in top shape to shuttle passengers on schedule across Elliott Bay, from Bremerton to Bainbridge Island, to Whidbey Island and many other destinations across Puget Sound all the way up to the San Juan Islands.

“The Washington State Ferries system is a huge tourism attraction, and for our guys to be part of that and keep it running, we’re proud of that,” says L-104 BM-ST Steve Behling.

Moreover, for residents and commerce, the system is a way of life.

“This is the lifeblood for getting products and people back and forth across the Puget Sound,” says Bill Michael, Operations Manager at Eagle Harbor. “The work [Boilermakers] do here is so important to the State of Washington, getting people back and forth safely—they don’t take this stuff lightly.” 

A crew of about a dozen Boilermakers take care of 20-plus vessels that need constant care and maintenance. They do everything from testing to steel repair; work on handrails on the sundecks, maintain car hatches for the steering gears and work in the engine rooms; fabricate deck inserts and handle piping modifications. You name it, Boilermakers do it.

“We’re out there continually responsible for everything staying up to par and being operational,” says L-104 Boilermaker and shop foreman Nathan Andrews. “Just in our weld shop alone, we fabricate parts because, you know, you don’t have a parts store for ferries.”

Boilermaker Wendy Bradford describes the ferry system like a freeway system that needs to keep commuters moving. With the toll the salt water and outdoor elements take on the vessels, there’s no end to maintenance to keep things running. 

 “You’re cutting, you’re fitting, you’re calculating, you’re welding,” she says. “You’re doing everything.” 

Michael concurs: “Our workload is constant [at Eagle Harbor]. And then we have all the terminals. There’s welding needed every day, everywhere… It’s full time for all of them. We’re never out of work for those folks.”

In addition to ongoing regular maintenance, updating and reconfiguring vessels, there’s also emergency repair work. Behling says it’s not unheard of for a Boilermaker to get the call for an emergency.

“They might need to set their dinner fork down and drive 90 miles to fix a vessel that has to be ready for service by 5 a.m. the next day,” he says. Residents and tourists are counting on them.

“Even though the public doesn’t see [the Boilermakers’ role] in that, it’s our folks who keep it all running.”

That’s a point of pride for L-104 Boilermakers who work at Eagle Harbor.

“Being a Boilermaker, everything I do, I can visually see it, and I can see how it affects the community,” Andrews says. “And I can say, man, I was part of those projects.”

Boilermaker Sarah Hlynosky echoes that: “I feel like I’m helping my community. I’m building something that’s going to be a permanent fixture in history.”

Other L-104 brothers and sisters join the sentiment:

“We take our time and do it right the first time,” says Miguel Rosario.

“We are better than everybody else,” Bradford adds. “We are better.”

And, according to Michael, the Boilermakers’ pride manifests in work well done.

“You understand the pride that goes into what they’re doing,” he says. “And you can’t replace that with anything else.”

Watch a short film on L-104’s work at Eagle Harbor.