Water-World: State Ferries as They’re Supposed to be

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The Washington State Ferry passes south of Saltspring Island on its way from Anacortes, Washington, to Sidney, British Columbia, Canada. (Image: David Stanley, Wikimedia)

About once every ten years, after summer days have drifted away and leaves become mash on the sidewalks of Puget Sound cities, someone raises the issue of bridges, hovercrafts or hydrofoils replacing the picturesque green and white ferries on our local waters, badly overstressed by summer users.

Those suggestions spread across local news outlets when our seasonal rains tend to obliterate inspiring vistas from the decks of ferries.  If such alternate modes of water transport were publicized in the bright summer or fall, passengers might dismiss such ideas as practical jokes.

The Washington State Ferry system, which grew out of the chaotic but colorful “mosquito fleet” that moved our forebears around Puget Sound and Lakes Union and Washington, was put together as part of the Washington State Department of Transportation in the early 1950s.  Today, the system operates on 10 routes serving 20 terminals.  The 21 vessels comprise the largest ferry fleet in the United States, and one of the largest in the world.  The largest vessels can carry 2,500 passengers and 202 vehicles.  Beginning in the 1950s, several bridges replaced runs: notably Agate Pass on Bainbridge Island, Hood Canal at Lofall, and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

The green and white state ferries carry millions of tourists and commuters.  Hikers, campers and foldboaters can be seen in all seasons.  Large trucks move supplies with ease.

Olympic National Park consists of two large hunks: first, the rugged interior mountains, and then, to the west, long ocean beaches shaped like a giant salamander.  Both sections include thousands of acres of untouched natural beauty.  This great park and hundreds of smaller state, county, and municipal parks are mostly reached by riding a ferry across Puget Sound.

Once on board, cyclists, backpackers, and RV families witness various sideshows.  Whales, seals, and sea otters offer exciting deckside entertainment.  Overturned sailboats are rescued by ferry crews.  Occasionally, an eccentric passenger will change his or her mind, leap from the car deck and swim back to the dock.  Suddenly-awakened drivers have been known to roar against the side or into off-ramp walls and abutments.  In July, 1975, a brave and perhaps foolhardy athlete water-skied for two miles on a towline leading from the “Hyak” on the Seattle-Bremerton run.

Failed equipment and bad weather have caused crushed docks.  Some boats run aground.  In 1985, the Washington State Ferry system accurately boasted of “a 34-year record of safe transportation service.”  Those accomplishments have been repeated since.

Other onboard adventures mark the ferry system experience.  Business law courses were taught aboard the Bremerton-Seattle run.  Groups rent the vessels between service runs for marriage ceremonies, dances, art shows, and music recitals.  It is not uncommon to enjoy chamber music or singing groups while on a cross-Sound trip.

The glories and mysteries of modern technology will relentlessly demand more modern, speedier transportation.  Meanwhile, history buffs, backpackers, stressed commuters and wide-eyed tourists will continue to be charmed and revived by the graceful rhythms offered aboard our Washington State Ferry system.

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Junius Rochester, whose family has shaped the city for many generations, is an award-winning Northwest historian and author of numerous books about Seattle and other places.

1 COMMENT

  1. Funny your picture shows a run that is not, and may again never be, in service (Anacortes to Sidney). Pandemic related crew shortages and travel restrictions have taken a toll on the ferries.

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