M.V. COHO: 50 Years of Reliable Service


Published December 2009.
Photo credits, all photos by Shawn J. Dake ©.2009 unless otherwise stated.

For an ocean-going vessel to reach the age of 50 is quite an accomplishment. To span a career of over five decades under the same name, ownership and on the original service it was designed for is almost unheard of. Yet that is exactly what the M.V. COHO has managed to do. It is a ship perfectly suited to the daily ferry service it provides between Port Angeles, Washington and Victoria, British Columbia. In over 50 years, it has never missed a sailing and is as reliable today as it was at the time of it’s maiden voyage in 1959.

The IROQUOIS approaching the Black Ball Line terminal at Port Angeles, circa the late 1930’s. From the collection of Steven J. Pickens. www.evergreenfleet.com

The Black Ball Ferry Line of today takes it’s name and heritage from a long line of predecessors flying the red flag with the black ball in the center. Familial ties date back as far as the original Black Ball Line of clipper ships that crossed the Atlantic from 1816 until 1878. More recent company connections can be made to the Alaska Steamship Company, founded in 1894 by Charles Peabody and his partners, and the Puget Sound Navigation Company (PSN), established in 1898. In 1902, the PSN pioneered a steamship route between Port Townsend and Port Angeles on the Washington side and Victoria, British Columbia on the southern tip of Vancouver Island in Canada. Peabody’s fleet merged with the interesting vessels of Captain Joshua Green in 1903 turning the PSN into a force to be reckoned with. Four years later Green purchased two Great Lakes vessels, the twin-funneled, steel-hulled steamers CHIPPEWA and IROQUOIS, greatly upgrading the quality of service to become competitive with the Canadian Pacific Railway’s fleet of “Princess” ships. By the late 1920’s both were converted to carry automobiles in addition to passengers.

The S.S. IROQUOIS as she would have appeared in Black Ball Line colors while under ownership of Puget Sound Navigation Company. Colorized photo from the collection of Steven J. Pickens.
The IROQUOIS was rebuilt in the late 1920’s as an auto ferry and night boat to Victoria. Colorized photo from the collection of Steven J. Pickens

Joshua Green resigned from the PSN in 1927 to pursue banking following the death of Charles Peabody in 1926. In 1928, Alexander Marshall Peabody, Charles’ son, became the company’s president and revived The Black Ball Line trade name. Over the years the Black Ball Line ran passenger ferries such as the famous CHINOOK and the art deco masterpiece KALAKALA (fashioned from a former California ferryboat named PERALTA). The old ferries of the Black Ball Line went on to form the basis of the Washington State Ferry System in 1951, while the six ships that were retained by the company, transferred to the Canadian flag and a decade later were purchased by the new British Columbia Ferry Authority in 1961. In addition to pioneering passenger and vehicle ferries, one of the PSN subsidiary companies was the Black Ball Freight Service. Mr. Robert J. (Bob) Acheson became their traffic manager in 1932. By 1936, he was able to purchase the freight service and the rights to the ports. In 1952, Mr. Acheson and his wife Lois renamed their company Black Ball Transport, Inc. The house flag added a thin white circle around the black ball. The independent Black Ball Transport, Inc. ran freight service with the 1901-built IROQUOIS, which it acquired in 1947. The former passenger steamer, later converted to a night boat was completely rebuilt again as a motor freighter in the early 1950’s. It emerged unrecognizable from the pretty little ship it once was.

Two views of the rebuilt IROQUOIS as a freighter. Credits: Courtesy of Black Ball Ferry Line.

The IROQUOIS’ route traveled year-round between Seattle, Port Townsend, Port Angeles and Victoria until 1959, then summers only when the new COHO joined the fleet. Although getting ahead of the story, the Black Ball Freight Service was sold in 1973 to ROCOR International, with the IROQUOIS going to Alaska-Shell, ultimately becoming a crab processor until intentionally sunk in 1982. The COHO thankfully was retained by Black Ball Transport and continues operating to the present day.

Keel Laying ceremony for the COHO, January 12, 1959. Courtesy of Black Ball Ferry Line
The COHO under construction at Seattle. Courtesy of Black Ball Ferry Line.

In addition to beautiful scenery, the waters of Puget Sound are famous for a magnificent silver salmon. In 1959, Black Ball Transport, Inc. began building an auto and passenger ferry named after this prized fish, the COHO. It was R.J. Acheson’s dream to build a ship for passenger and vehicle travel, as well as for freight service. Philip F. Spaulding & Associates of Seattle designed the ship. The keel of hull number 105, was laid on January 12, 1959 at the Puget Sound Bridge & Dredging Company in Seattle. (The yard was purchased that year by Lockheed and the Dredging portion of the name was amended to Dry Dock.) The exterior was sleek and pleasing to the eye, looking much more like a miniature passenger liner than a typical ferry. A raked tripod mast just forward of the single squat funnel enhanced her low profile. The interior spaces were in line with other American ship designs of the day, attractive and functional, rather than lavish or elegant. Plenty of glass windows for viewing the passing scenery offset the austerity of metal bulkheads and stainless steel rails. The furnishings were a then modern, now classic, mid-20th Century-style giving the ship a comfortable, contemporary feel. By the end of the year, the new ship had undergone her sea trials and was ready to enter regular service. Built at a cost of $3 million, the M.V. COHO was the most expensive, privately-funded ferry ever built in North America up to that time. The flag of the United States flies over the stern and the ship is registered in Seattle.

Philip F. Spaulding-designer, R.J. Acheson-Owner and Horace W. McCurdy-builder aboard the COHO during Sea Trials in December, 1959. Courtesy of Black Ball Ferry Line, photo: Joe Williamson.
The M.V. COHO departs on her maiden voyage, December 29, 1959. Courtesy of Black Ball Ferry Line

The maiden commercial voyage sailed from Port Angeles, Washington to Victoria, B.C. on December 29, 1959. The M.V. COHO maintained this run with roundtrip voyages at least twice each day and up to four times daily in the summer. In addition, to her day job as a passenger and vehicle ferry, the COHO served as a night freighter carrying trucks between Seattle, Port Angeles, Port Townsend and Victoria for the Black Ball Freight Service, until 1973.

The M.V. COHO departs on her maiden voyage, December 29, 1959. Courtesy of Black Ball Ferry Line

Advertising the COHO’s 1961 season Courtesy of Black Ball Ferry Line

A retro-style poster from 2009.

The COHO was the built at the right time and was a perfect size for the route. Travel by private car was increasing as the highway systems gradually improved. At 5,315 gross tons and with the ability to handle up to 125 cars and initially 750 passengers, the ship was ideal, especially in comparison to the older tonnage that serviced Victoria. The COHO is 341.6 feet long, with a width of 72.2 feet. The original propulsion plant consisted of two Cooper-Bessemer diesel engines with a total output of 4,160 BHP, driving the eight foot diameter twin screws, for a cruising speed of 15 knots. The original design was so good in fact that when the British Columbia Ferry Authority decided to build their first two new ships in 1960, the SIDNEY and the TSAWWASSEN, utilized Philip Spaulding’s plans for the COHO with modifications for the Canadian service. The prefix “QUEEN OF…” was later added to the B.C. Ferries and subsequent ships maintained similar design traits, as did the three Alaska Marine Highway vessels built in 1963.

What a difference 10 years makes. The traditional PRINCESS MARGUERITE above contrasts with the modern profile of the M.V. COHO. Postcard view from the collection of Shawn J. Dake.
M.V. COHO. Photo Shawn Dake

The COHO had competition on the Victoria to Port Angeles route in the form of Canadian Pacific Railway’s classic two-funneled ferry PRINCESS MARGUERITE. From a design standpoint the two ships could not have been more different. The Canadian vessel entered service in 1949, but was largely based on pre-War designs. Although just 10 years older than the COHO, she looked like a relic from another era next to the modern new American vessel. From the outset the COHO had the advantage of being able to load vehicles through a stern door at Port Angeles and disembark them through a side door at Victoria. For the return trip the entry and exit from the vessel was simply reversed making for faster loading. PRINCESS MARGUERITE only had a side door and originally a much lower car-carrying capacity. On the COHO there are up to 14 feet of vertical clearance, compared to only 6 feet, 10 inches on the PRINCESS MARGUERITE. The older ship made one afternoon roundtrip from Victoria to Port Angeles, in between roundtrip voyages to Seattle, while the COHO made up to four roundtrips daily during the summer season. Although a wonderful and beautiful ship, the PRINCESS MARGUERITE was competitively outclassed. Canadian Pacific kept trying until September, 1974 but finally gave up on the route and their classic ship.

M.V. COHO at Victoria. Photo Shawn J. Dake, October 30, 2009
M.V. COHO funnel and tripod mast. Photo Shawn J. Dake 2009

Over the years the basic layout of the COHO has not changed much. Additional seating has increased the capacity to 1,000 passengers. A partially covered solarium was added to the aft Sun Deck in 1974. A second, smaller tripod mast has been placed above the bridge, added in 1988. Below decks a sewage treatment plant was another addition.

M.V. COHO car deck. Photo Shawn J. Dake 2009
Bow section of Vehicle Deck

The current vehicle capacity is 101 cars. Forward on the top deck is the wheelhouse, with the Captain’s cabin situated just aft on the starboard side and the Chief Engineer’s stateroom to port. Crew quarters make up the rest of the interior space in this section, with a small crew lounge, galley and mess located aft of the funnel.

Forward structure & Bridge
The Wheelhouse
Engine telegraph on the Bridge Wing
Crew quarters located below the tripod mast
A typical crew cabin on Sun Deck
Crew Mess Room
Solarium and the open seating area

The farthest aft section is the passenger solarium and outdoor seating. Interior and exterior staircases connect it to the Promenade Deck below. Passengers are able to walk entirely around this deck and are even permitted on the ship’s bow once the vessel has cleared port.

Bell from bow
Looking Aft on Starboard Promenade Deck
The bridge wing extends over Promenade Deck forward


View from Observation Lounge
Forward Observation Lounge looking aft
Builder’s Plate


Purser’s Lobby
Notice Board with statistics


Forward is a very comfortable observation lounge with windows on three sides. The ship’s builder’s plate along with other awards and memorabilia, are displayed on the aft bulkhead. Through the doors on the starboard side is the Purser’s Office. The lobby also contains the forward stairs down to the car deck.


The Midship Passenger Lounge
The Gift Shop and Cafeteria

Continuing aft there are Gents and Ladies restrooms on either side as the hallways lead into the large passenger lounge. Bench style padded seats are along the sides with orange and green chairs throughout the middle. A new duty free shopping counter was recently added to the aft section. Beyond the aft stairs is the coffee shop. Part of the original cafeteria has become the stainless steel-walled gift shop with souvenirs of the ship and the Pacific Northwest. Passengers can eat their meals and snacks at tables with attached seats along both sides and in the aft section. Weather permitting, a fine view of the Olympic Mountains can be had from the ship’s stern on the trip to Victoria.

A fine view of the Olympic Mountains can be had while crossing the Strait Of Juan de Fuca. Courtesy of Black Ball Ferry Line


Speaking of weather the COHO has to sail in all kinds of conditions from beautiful sunny days to fog, snow, rain and high winds and seas. As an example, one such day was May 5, 1990. The latest ship of the B.C. Stena Line, the 1966-built CROWN PRINCESS VICTORIA was on her inaugural trip from Seattle to Victoria. It was a particularly rough day in the Strait Of Juan de Fuca with the ship battling 50 knot winds, and taking water over the bow. Arriving at the outer harbor of Victoria, it soon became obvious that the CROWN PRINCESS VICTORIA would not be able to berth as the winds repeatedly drove the ship against the cement pier. The COHO meanwhile, seemingly unfazed by the elements, sailed right past into her berth in the inner harbor. The COHO then made her normal return trip to Port Angeles, with the B.C. Stena Line ship wallowing around for 17 hours before finally returning safely to Seattle. When the seas run high and the winds blow through the Strait, the COHO has to tack to keep the waves on the bow, before changing course to present the stern to a following sea. This is done for the comfort of the passengers and keeps the motion down by not taking the seas directly on the ship’s beam. As most days are fairly calm, the 90-minute run straight across to Victoria can be handled in the normal manner.

Storm is threatening

During the years that the COHO was used as both a daytime ferry and a night freighter, it was said that the ship was in perpetual motion. On a typical 24 hour day in the 1960’s, the longest period she would be in one place was two hours. After the daytime passenger runs, the ship was loaded with truck trailers filled with cargo bound for Port Townsend and Seattle, arriving there by 9:30pm. Sailing again just before midnight, the process would be reversed with up to 76, 24-foot truck trailers coming aboard, then dropping off freight before a 5:00am arrival back at Port Angeles. By 7:00am the ship was a passenger and auto ferry again bound for Victoria. The freight operation was an early example of a successful Roll On/Roll Off (RORO) service, just becoming popular in the late 1950’s. Even today, the ship stops only for a brief overnight rest in Port Angeles.

Briefly at rest, unloading trucks at Port Angeles, Wa.
And underway again at Victoria, B.C.

By the beginning of the new millennium, the engines of the COHO were aging and a decision had to be made concerning the ship’s future. There was talk about a replacement, or possibly adding another vessel. Fate intervened, as the events of September 11, 2001 triggered a sharp decline in the tourism industry, putting any potential plans on hold. Instead, early in 2004, it was decided to replace her twin Cooper-Bessemer diesel engines with new General Motors EMD 12-645 7FB, turbocharged engines, each producing 2,550 BHP at 900 RPM connecting to Falk 3485 MRV reduction gears. The old 1958 vintage engines had been rated for 2,080 BHP each at 300 RPM.

Original Engine Information

The Elliott Bay Design Group (EBDG) designed and engineered the power transplant. The choice of EBDG was highly appropriate as the company over time had evolved from Philip F. Spaulding and Associates, the original designer of the COHO. The operation took place over a nine-week period at the Todd Pacific Shipyard. On the sea trials, all went well and a more powerful COHO returned to regular service on March 12, 2004.

The Black Ball Transport Company remained a family enterprise over the years. When Robert (R.J.) Acheson passed away in 1963, his wife Lois Bates Acheson took over the company. She had been Vice-President of the freight service since 1948. At it’s peak the company owned 350 trucks in addition to the ferry service. On August 29, 2004, at the age of 89 Lois Acheson died. She bequeathed $21 million and the ferry operation to the Oregon State University Foundation in Corvallis to establish a College Of Veterinary Medicine, under the Black Ball Transport Trust. In 2008, the company was renamed the Black Ball Ferry Line, remaining under American ownership, continuing the philanthropy of its founders. The company is headquartered in Victoria, B.C., employing up to 90 people during the peak season. Each year the COHO transports about 405,000 passengers, accounting for 60% of the total ferry visitors to Victoria’s Inner Harbor.

COHO in Victoria’s Inner Harbour, adjacent to the old C.P.R. Building and the Parliament Building. Courtesy of Black Ball Ferry Line

For 2009, the COHO was out of service for annual dry dock maintenance from January 26th until February 8th. The rest of the year the ship was back on schedule, usually with two to four roundtrip sailings each day. For the 50th anniversary, the company chose to celebrate all year long with promotions and events leading up to the actual anniversary date. On June 17th, at the start of the peak summer season, a symbolic celebration was held on the ship’s arrival at Victoria. A fireboat, tugs and a flotilla of small craft escorted the COHO to her berth at the Belleville Street terminal where business and tourism leaders were waiting with a large birthday cake. A similar commemoration happened at Port Angeles with a presentation at the local Chamber Of Commerce, along with a well attended company reunion of past employees and their families. The actual anniversary date of December 29th, falling in the off-season, was a lower key affair, although there were onboard festivities for passengers in recognition of this milestone event. For the current season fares for foot passengers are a modest $14.50 each way. Vehicle and driver fees are $53.00. Guests driving north on Highway 101 to Port Angeles, may leave their vehicles across from the ferry terminal in the public parking garage for $11.00 per day. Black Ball Ferry maintains an excellent website at www.cohoferry.com. A variety of travel packages and hotels in Victoria are offered in addition to the ferry reservations. The U.S. terminal is located at 101 E. Railroad Avenue in Port Angeles, Washington. For overnight accommodations, The Royal Victorian Motel is recommended, providing clean, basic motel accommodations at very reasonable rates. It is located just five blocks away and the staff goes out of their way to assist ferry passengers. www.royalvictorian.net.

Bow On View of the COHO underway

What does the future hold for the COHO? Engaged in international trade the ship must meet Safety Of Life At Seas (SOLAS) 2010 requirements. Several of the SOLAS provisions are “grandfathered” for the COHO and upgrades have been completed to meet all of the new requirements. Built according to the standards of American shipbuilding at the time, the vessel contains little or no wood. Other than the engines, relatively few alterations have been necessary over the years, which again is a tribute to her designer and builders. According to Ryan Burles, the President and Chief Executive Officer, “Given her maintenance regime and the new engines, she is good for at least 20 years. It is not our intention to change the way we have maintained her.” The company plans to continue business as usual for the foreseeable future. In their own words; “Today, the Black Ball Ferry Line continues its tradition and is proud to be a reliable leader in our tourism and transportation industry. In our 50 years of service, we have transported over 21 million passengers and 6 million vehicles. We plan to continue the tradition and deliver prompt, reliable service to our passengers.” Mr. Burles deferred when asked about sharing anecdotes from his 25 years with Black Ball. Instead he offered this summation, providing a glimpse of why the operation has been so successful. “Our company has always been like a family. The Captains, Officers and Managers have been mentors to the students and staff. Mr. Acheson had the crew quarters built up top on the COHO which at the time was unheard of (at that time {the norm was} down below beside the engine room). Mr. Acheson and Mrs. Acheson always cared about their staff and were able to keep it an environment where hard work and a reliable service coincided with a human touch.” It is a long and proud legacy, stretching over five decades, as the sleek red, white and gray ferry, M.V. COHO, with the Black Ball flag flying from her mast continues to cross the 22 mile Strait of Juan de Fuca, carrying passengers and their vehicles, safely between Port Angeles and Victoria.

Photo by Shawn J. Dake, 2009.

Vessel Information

Builder: Puget Sound Bridge & Dry Dock Company, Seattle, Washington

Year Built: 1959
Vessel Particulars
Type: Passenger/Auto ferry
Length : 341.6 ft overall
Breadth: 72.2 ft
Draft: 15.5 ft
Net Tonnage(NRT): 3897
Gross Tonnage: 5,315 as built
Passengers: 750 – 1,000
Vehicle Capacity: 125 as built, 101 as currently configured.
Loading: Stern door and Starboard side door forward.
Machinery: Twin Screw powered by twin diesel engines, with twin rudders.
Originally two Cooper-Bessemer Diesels with total output of 4,160 BHP
Replaced in 2004 with two General Motors Electro-Motive Division, 12 cylinder diesel Main Propulsion Engines with total rating of 5,100 BHP Cruising speed: 15 knots.
Call-Sign: WM4599
IMO Number : 507694900

Thanks to Vanessa Bachand, Ryan Burles, Bill Eisenhauer, Steven J. Pickens and Martin Cox.


Special Dedication to my Dad and Mom, Delbert and Gloria Dake, for taking me on my first “boat ride” in the 1960’s aboard the COHO. – Shawn J. Dake

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