PORT TOWNSEND -- Almost two dozen Tri-Citians joined about 130 others Friday to commission the MV Kennewick, a 64-car ferry that begins sailing from Port Townsend to Whidbey Island later this month.
The ceremony, staged on the car deck of the 273-foot vessel, included a blessing and drum songs from a dozen members from the S'Klallam and Klallam tribes from nearby communities and speeches from state dignitaries.
"I am excited. Is this awesome or what?" yelled 8th District Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, as he stepped to the podium. Klippert proudly wore a Kennewick High School Lions ball cap, while boasting in the new ferry.
"Welcome to the good ship, the good ferry Kennewick. Made in the USA, and even better, made in the state of Washington," he declared to applause from the audience.
The 4,000-ton ferry rocked gently under mostly gray skies and a chill that penetrated the crowd, but failed to cool the enthusiasm of the moment.
"We are here today to celebrate this milestone," said Kennewick Mayor Steve Young, one of several city officials who traveled across the state to attend the event.
Young noted that Kennewick has a history involving ferries that predates the community itself.
"I believe the earliest record of a ferry dates to April 29, 1806. That would be the Lewis and Clark expedition," he joked.
Young spoke of Kennewick's long heritage as an agricultural community and its more recent reputation as a tourist destination.
The new ferry Kennewick itself reveals evidence of the city's riverboat roots as shown in photographs displayed throughout the passenger cabin. One, believed to be from 1914, shows a riverboat named Kennewick, packed with passengers.
Other photographs depict a modern Kennewick, with its bridges, hydroplane races and impressive sunsets.
Young said the new ferry creates a link between Kennewick and Port Townsend, a place the mayor said he was pleased to visit for the first time.
The name Kennewick is derived from a Native American word meaning wintering place.
David Moseley, assistant secretary in the ferries division for the state Department of Transportation, said the Kennewick ferry is the last of three commissioned to be built as a Kwa-di Tabil class ferry. He said the Kennewick was built for $60 million, which was $7 million less than expected and completed three months ahead of schedule.
Moseley said the three ferries, named Salish, Chetzemoka and Kennewick, were singled out by WorkBoat magazine, as a class of vessel deserving the award of boats of distinction for 2011.
State Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island and chairwoman of the state House transportation committee, said the new ferry must be thought of not as simply a ferry, but as being part of the whole state.
"I want to say how proud I am to be on this boat," said Clibborn, who is been an enthusiastic champion and sponsor of it.
The Kennewick will become a second ferry servicing the Port Townsend to Coupeville route. The route has been without a second ferry for six years because the existing boats were retired because of old age.
"Without these boats we do not have the ability to stay vibrant. To make this happen is one of the finest pieces of legislation we've done," said 10th District Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor.
Capt. Mark Haupt said the new ferry has special features that make it especially suitable for the 5-mile route across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The short trip of about 30 minutes crosses water that has heavy currents, tides and strong winds that can whip through the channel at up to 117 mph.
"On a rough day it can get wild," he said.
Haupt said one of the safety features on the new ferry is a marine slide evacuation system similar to chutes used on commercial airplanes so passengers can quickly slide away into waiting life boats.
Another feature is a propulsion system that has fully articulated rudders, which allow the football field-sized boat to do a 180-degree turnabout within its own length.
That kind of mobility will be useful when approaching the docks during low tides, Haupt explained.
Kennewick's official entourage included: City Manager Marie Mosley, Police Chief Ken Hohenberg, his executive assistant Linda Spier, Councilman Don Britain, Director of Community Relations Terry Walsh, Tim Arntzen, executive director of the Port of Kennewick, and Kris Watkins, chief executive officer for the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau.
Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, also attended with his wife and staff assistant, as well as a dozen others.
Michael Fox of Bainbridge Island was there for a special reason. He suggested to Spier 18 months ago that the city consider nominating Kennewick as a name for three new ferries that would be built.
Fox's father worked on them and sometimes would let his son accompany him on ferry trips.
Fox said he was thrilled to attend the event, thinking as he first stepped onto the deck: "Wow. This is the boat I helped name."
After the speeches, Fox said his late father would be honored. "I know he's here in spirit. The blessing was very unique and very touching," he said.
Fox wasn't the only son with a connection through his father to the new ferry.
Owen Morrison, 9, of Lynden, also was there Friday, standing next to his father, Calvin.
They came because Owen loves ferries and has a goal to ride on each state ferry before summer's end.
The MV Kennewick is one of just six of the 22 in the system he has yet to sail on.
Owen's father said they travel by ferry every chance they can to visit relatives near Olympia.
Owen said his goal is to grow up to work on a ferry, either on the car deck or as a captain, maybe even on the MV Kennewick.
George T. Jones, a member of Port Gamble's S'Klallam tribe and a drummer for the blessing song, said ferries provide an important service.
"It is good to be included. It helps build relationships on both sides of the water," he said.
Jones said when he heard the name of the new ferry he immediately thought of Kennewick Man, the 9,300-year-old bones found along the shore of the Columbia River in the summer of 1996.
"I fish out here, especially for crab, and I like to see the ferries go by," Jones said.
Mike LaCroix, staff chief engineer, said the new ferry is powered by a 12-cylinder diesel reduction engine that produces 3,000 horsepower -- enough to move through strong currents.
"This is really neat," Haupt said.
"Ferries aren't inexpensive, but we are thankful to the people for paying for this. And I'm thankful because I don't have to carry my immersion suit like I did for the last two years," he added, smiling.