The Elwha had been scheduled for launch in August, but was delayed by a shipyard labor dispute. Her sister ship, the Hyak, launched a year earlier, was in service on the Seattle-Bremerton run. The Kaleetan was still in San Diego, having turned back from the trip north due to a heavy storm. The fourth vessel, the Yakima, was also in San Diego awaiting passage north.
Designed by W. C. Nickum & Sons, and financed by $23 million in state bonds and federal funds, the four ferries of the Hyak class were enlarged versions of the Evergreen State class, built by Puget Sound Bridge and Drydock Company in the mid-1950s. The new ferries were 382 feet long, carried 2,067 passengers and 160 automobiles, and had more than three times the horsepower of the Evergreen State class. At a service speed of 20 knots, the new ferries were 43 percent faster.