Navigating Ferries

Climb aboard, er, walk or drive aboard. Washington State Ferries operates two ferry routes for Whidbey Island: one in Clinton that leads to Mukilteo and Seattle, and one in Coupeville that leads to Port Townsend and the Olympic Peninsula. Climbing about isn’t very practical, but walking or driving aboard are definitely encouraged. Commuters did it regularly. Visitors do it as a treat, and sometimes a necessary one. Locals do it when they need or want to. Ferry rides are a great source of views and stories, and something that benefits from a bit of an introduction.

Note: If you want the official information on the Washington State Ferry System, contact them directly. They are the experts. They get to deal with a variety of situations every day and have probably answered your question(s) before. Give them a call. If you want more automated and official updates, subscribe to their alert system, and maybe follow them on Twitter (@WSFerries).

Tom Trimbath - September's Rust.jpgWhidbey has a bridge, an impressive bridge, the Deception Pass Bridge that leaps from one cliff to another by bouncing across a mid-channel island. That’s it. There are no other bridges. Connecting Clinton to Mukilteo means crossing water that is hundreds of feet deep. Connecting Coupeville (from the old Keystone terminal) to Port Townsend is shallower, but the route crosses a much wider gap with much stronger currents that also flow through the main shipping lanes that feed container and cruise ships to Seattle and other Puget Sound harbors. Bridges just don’t make much sense. So, rather than spend an exorbitant amount of money on some sort of engineering marvel of a road, the Washington State Highway System fills the gaps with ferries. Welcome to a romantic, photogenic, and memorable solution.

It sounds easy, and can be. Arrive at the terminal, get on the boat, enjoy the ride, and continue your journey on the other side. Ah, but are not alone.

The cheapest way to ride the ferry is to walk on. Pedestrians pay a low rate, or even no rate for those leaving the island from Mukilteo. The ferry system probably figures they’ll get the money back on the return trip. Buy a ticket from the kiosk in the terminal, wait at the gate for the ferry worker to usher you towards the boat, and get upstairs until the cars load. Pick the right day and time and there will probably be a bus or two on either side.

The pricier way to ride the ferry is to take your car with you. On the sweetest days, drive up to the ticket booth and pay your fare. If you’re lucky, you can drive right onto the boat. That luck is rare enough that getting to do that becomes something to announce at a party. (Particular honors go to those are the first or last car onboard.) You’ll probably have to park for a while. Turn off your engine because waiting for the ferry means sitting in a no-idle zone. The neighbors appreciate the quieter and cleaner air when you do so. Eventually, a ferry worker or two will direct lane after lane of cars and trucks onto the ferry – but only when it is time. You have to wait for the boat to dock, off-load its passengers, off-load the vehicles, make sure the ferry is properly emptied, and then ready to reload. (That bit about emptying also means you have to disembark even if you just want to ride the ferry back and forth.)

Pedestrians only have to wait for the next boat to arrive. Drivers get to practice patience. Imagine a highway that only let about a hundred vehicles through every half hour or so. There’d be a line. In the middle of the day in the middle of the week in the middle of the winter there may be no line. On a Friday night or Saturday morning in the summer Whidbey’s popularity is on display with lines that snake miles away from the terminals. Patience. No idling. And notice what the locals do. (One easy trick is to check the various ferry cameras: from Washington State’s Department of Transportation, and Whidbey Telecom’s site.)

Regular travelers come equipped with something to eat, drink, and read. Maybe with a pillow and blanket. Maybe with a good cell phone to make best use of the time. The best equipped carry the thing that’s already been mentioned: patience. If you’re not sure how long the wait will be, watch the signs beside the ferry line. There are markers estimating how long you’ll have to wait. They’re close, but things change. Sometimes there’s an accident or a medical emergency. Sometimes the system speeds up the runs with other boats or quicker turn-arounds to limit the interruptions. One thing is for sure, stay with your vehicle. The line wants to move and if your car can’t – well – get that latte or ice cream cone later – or before you get into the line. Oh yeah, and no cutting that will get you a ticket.

If you know your schedule for the trip to or from Port Townsend, consider getting a reservation.

If you drive on, make sure you set the parking brake and please, please, turn off the alarm system. Your car is on a boat. No one is going to steal it, and it is very difficult to sneak up on a car when everyone in theirs is watching.

Tom Trimbath-DSC_4856-Edit-FBISedit-CLEANAs romantic as the ride can be, it is also a ride across a bit of the Pacific Ocean. Despite its name, the Pacific is not always pacified. If the crew tells you to do something, do it. Water can wash onto the car deck (or higher in freak events). Sometimes the ride is a bit bumpy. Sometimes it is bumpy enough that they turn around or cancel the runs for the day. If that happens and you’re on the “wrong” side, be prepared to wait it out or find a route to the next ferry terminal, or maybe even drive all the way around. It happens, though rarely.

The fun, relaxing, and enjoyable part is the ride. Take a nap, do some laps walking around the passenger deck, grab a quick meal, or visit with friends. Or, simply look out the window. The area is known for its natural beauty, and that isn’t always on the horizon. Sometimes the boat has to stop or slow as the whales cross by. As one ferry worker announced their presence, “Enjoy the show folks. Remember, this is possibly closer than you’ll get in a whale watching boat, and a lot cheaper.” There’s also the guilty pleasure of calling the boss to say, “Hey, I’ll be a little late. We had to slow for some orcas.”

Use the ferry often enough and its rhythm and pattern begin to settle in. Locals can frequently cite down to the fraction of a minute how long the ride to the ferry is (with no traffic.) (Check out Commuter’s Lament, one commuter’s folk song about his daily journey.)

Putting a ferry ride in your itinerary is a welcome break. Crossing the moat is an opportunity to switch mental gears. Wind down for island life. Crank it up for city life. Whatever inspires you to take the trip, remember to bring a camera for the views – and a bit of patience, just in case.

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