After 65 years on the job, one of Caltrans' hardest workers retired early this year and was replaced by a peppy young newcomer.
But the Real McCoy II, a $4.3 million ferry that carries about 400 vehicles a day across Cache Slough between Rio Vista and Ryer Island on Highway 84 in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, is proving to be a rambunctious youth, more troublesome and far less reliable than its predecessor and namesake.
Since it started service in February, the Real McCoy II has broken down so many times that many riders have lost count. Caltrans officials say the ferry has been out of service for a total of 1,877 hours since it was launched - or about 30 percent of the time. Its longest stretch without a breakdown has been 20 days.
Unlike its elder, the new ferry has an unusual hydraulic propulsion system that has proved problematic. It has repeatedly blown hoses and broken parts, said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Ken Kostecki, chief of inspections.
State Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, who represents much of the delta, fought for years to get the Real McCoy replaced. Now, she says, "We'd like to take it back, frankly."
Hydraulic system woes
Like most of the earlier breakdowns, the latest involved the hydraulic system spewing a small amount of oil into the water, prompting the Coast Guard to issue a "no sail" order and shut down the ferry until the problem is fixed. The Real McCoy II has been docked on the Rio Vista side of the slough since Sept. 9, available only to emergency vehicles.
That's forced Ryer Island residents and workers, delta commuters and sightseers to take a more circuitous route via levee roads and Caltrans' J-Mack cable ferry across Steamboat Slough on the other side of Ryer Island. The detour adds at least a half hour to the journey.
"It's a pain in the ass, really," said Jimmy Malone, a welder who lives in Rio Vista and visits his parents on Ryer Island three or four times a week. "They need to fix it; it's a new ferry. What was the point in spending all those tax dollars if we're not going to be able to use it?"
Caltrans spokesman Bob Haus acknowledged that the new boat, built by Nichols Brothers Boat Builders of Whidbey Island, Wash., has had repeated problems, especially with its hydraulic system. Because the ferry is under warranty - but only until February - Caltrans is eager to get the problems fixed.
In May, Caltrans hired an independent consultant to analyze the problem and make recommendations on how to fix the ferry. On Sept. 23, Caltrans directed Nichols Brothers "to come up with an action plan" to make the Real McCoy II shipshape, Haus said. The shipbuilder responded on Thursday, and Caltrans officials are reviewing that reply, Haus said.
"We want all these things resolved before the warranty expires," he said.
Wolk said that she has been told that Nichols Brothers has been "dragging its heels about fixing or repairing the boat" and that Caltrans has been forced to send the matter to the state attorney general's office for possible legal action.
"Negotiations with the company don't seem to be going smoothly," she said. "As far as I'm concerned, the state of California has a warranty. The last (ferry) lasted 65 years. Here we have a brand-new ferry that's not working. California is entitled to a new ferry."
Officials with Nichols Brothers did not respond to requests for comment.
Taking the long way
Meanwhile, folks who live or work on the island, or cross it to commute to Rio Vista, are growing weary of the longer drive along narrow, often winding levee roads and across drawbridges in Rio Vista and Isleton to the J-Mack ferry landing.
"It's so inconvenient to have to go all the way around every day," said Bob Peterson, a pest control adviser who lives in Rio Vista and works on Ryer Island. "I lose at least an hour a day - and every hour is money."
While Caltrans waits for the ferry to be fixed, the agency is trying to get permission from the Coast Guard to run limited service - only during peak traffic hours. Frequent ferry users say they are frustrated not just by the shutdowns, but also by the slow flow of news about the ferry from Caltrans.
"The big problem is there is no information," said Tina McBride, who helps run a family business, Delta Tree, on Ryer Island, her home for 20 years. "We've heard nothing from them since this last shutdown started. For them to treat us like we don't matter is not fair."
Unique stretches of road
The Ryer Island ferries are a unique and important part of life in the delta. As the only two ferries in the state that are part of the state highway system, the boats are supposed to operate around the clock every day of the year, except for two daily 20-minute lunch breaks and when river conditions are too dangerous. A bridge across Miner's Slough provides access to the island on the north end, but the ferries ensure that the island is not a cul-de-sac by providing access to Rio Vista, Ryde and Isleton.
Only about 400 people live on Ryer Island, but the free ferries also haul commuters from Sacramento County bound for Rio Vista or Antioch. Agricultural workers also rely on the ferries, as do a couple of recreational vehicle parks and marinas. Regular users know the crew - a captain and deckhand on the Real McCoy II, a lone captain on the J-Mack - and the crew knows when to expect some of the regulars, sometimes making sure the boat is waiting on the right side of the river for their arrival.
But when either ferry is out of service, it makes life in the delta a little more difficult.
"People say: Well, that's the price you pay for living in paradise," said Scott Kauffman, who owns Hidden Harbor Marina and lives on the island. "And, yeah, it's pretty nice - but this is ridiculous."