SEATTLE – The Washington state ferry service isn't going to start turning away hefty passengers, but it has had to reduce the capacity of the nation's largest ferry system because people have been packing on the pounds.
Coast Guard vessel stability rules that took effect nationwide Dec. 1 raised the estimated weight of the average adult passenger to 185 pounds from the previous 160 pounds, based on population information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
During the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States and about one-third of American adults are now considered obese, the CDC says on its website.
The state ferry system has complied with the new stability rules by simply reducing the listed capacity of its vessels, Coast Guard Lt. Eric Young said Wednesday.
"That has effectively reduced the amount of passengers by about 250 passengers or so depending on the particular ferry," said Young, who is based in Seattle. "They generally carry about 2,000, so it's down to 1,750 now."
With that many passengers, the ferry wouldn't tip over even if everyone ran to the side at the same time to look at a pod of killer whales, he said.
The state operates 23 white and green vessels on 10 routes across Puget Sound and through the San Juan Islands to British Columbia. Carrying more than 22 million passengers a year, it's the biggest ferry system in the United States and one of the four largest in the world, said system spokeswoman Marta Coursey.
The ferries themselves could be contributing to passenger girth. The galleys cater to customers looking for fast food they can eat while looking out the windows at the scenery and seagulls. Calorie counters typically aren't buying the hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken strips.
"We do serve light beer," said Peggy Wilkes who has worked 20 years for the food concessionaire, Olympic Cascade Services, which serves food and drinks on 12 of the state ferries.
News reports of overloaded ferries sinking in other parts of the world are sometimes a topic of discussion, she said.
"I think it's cool the Coast Guard is keeping up on that," she said. "Not that we overload them. A couple of times, like for a Seahawks game, we've had to cut off passengers and had to leave them at the dock."
Carol Johnston, who has been riding the state ferries since 1972, said she found the rule change perplexing.
"The ferries are not listing, they are not sinking," said Johnston, who was onboard a Seattle-bound ferry from Bainbridge Island Wednesday afternoon. "How are you going to establish how much weight there is on the ferry?"
Johnston worried about the potential loss in revenue, which could cause ferry fares to increase further. And she joked she may alter her eating habits.
"That means I will not have popcorn with my wine," Johnston said.
The reduced passenger capacity is unlikely to have much practical effect on the spacious ferries, said Coursey, the system spokeswoman. The ferries often fill up with vehicles, but the number of passengers, especially walk-ons, is seldom a problem, she said.
The new stability rules may have a bigger impact on the smaller charter fishing boats, such as those that take anglers fishing out of the Pacific Ocean ports of Westport and Ilwaco, Young said. Any vessel that carries more than six paying customers has to be inspected and certified by the Coast Guard as a passenger vessel.