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Heavier riders force capacity cut on Washington state ferries

Dec 23 2011

British Columbia had the fast ferries.

Now, Washington state has the fat ferries.

On Dec. 1, U.S. Coast Guard vessel stability rules raised the estimated weight of the average adult passenger to 185 pounds from 160 pounds. This was based in part on population information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to a coast guard report on the changes.

To comply with the new rules, the state-run ferry system has reduced the number of passengers on a number of routes, Marta Coursey, director of communications for Washington State Ferries, said Thursday.

"The U.S. Coast Guard certifies our vessels in terms of stability. It's considered a safety issue. And so, as Americans increase in weight, if we have too many passengers on them, that would affect the stability of the vessels," Coursey said.

During the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the U.S. About one-third of American adults are obese. In comparison, the prevalence of obesity in Canada between 2007 and 2009 was 24.1 per cent, more than 10 percentage points lower than in the U.S. at 34.4 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.

Coursey predicted Washington State Ferries customers won't see any major difference in terms of service.

"We rarely, if ever, meet our capacity on all of our vessels in terms of passengers," she said. "This is about our certification with the coast guard."

The state operates 23 ferries on 10 routes across Puget Sound and through the San Juan Islands to B.C. The ferries carry more than 22 million passengers a year.

"Even in busy, peak times, on predominantly tourist routes, where the ferries might reach capacity, those vessels are not affected," Coursey said.

The Elwha car ferry, which sails from Anacortes to Sidney, is not affected by the new stability rules because it is certified by Safety of Life at Sea, she said.

The new rules mean ferries that generally had a capacity of up to 2,000 passengers will now have a capacity of up to 1,782 passengers.

Despite the Pacific Buffet and the "legendary White Spot fare" served in the cafeteria, B.C. Ferries has not been required to reduce its passenger capacity limits due to passenger weight.

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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