Not First Time Ferry Riders

Ferries. Like them or loathe them (usually depending on the length of the ferry line), the ferry system is wise enough to have a web site for first-time riders. People have to start somewhere. But what about a guide for folks that are going to ride the ferry more than once? Talk to the regular riders and get enough advice to fill a book. Here are just a few notes for  Whidbey’s two routes on the Washington State Ferry System. It won’t answer everything, but it may hint at the lessons of really regularly riding the routes.

Here’s a vignette, a simple episode that shows how an experienced local has their routine practiced to personal perfection.

They waited in line. No drama. Drove to wherever the ferry workers directed them; and then in a set of fluid motions they: put it in Park, turned off the engine, set the parking brake, reclined their seat, tucked a pillow behind their head, dropped their hat over their eyes, and had eyes closed within seconds. They made it look like an Olympic event. Perfection. 

Here some things to keep in mind for your routine (in no particular order).

  • parking brake on – Gotta do it. Boats rock and roll. Without that parking brake a car can look like it’s trying to parallel park by bouncing off the cars around it. Local insurance agents are probably familiar with the cases. The ferry isn’t a city street. It is hard to have that happen and then hit-and-run.  
  • alarm off – Again, boats rock and roll, which can set off car alarms. Someone parks their car, heads up to the passenger area before the ferry leaves the dock, the boat rolls with a wave, and their car starts calling for them. The owner can’t hear it but everyone parked right beside them knows who to blame. Don’t interrupt those important naps. Besides, your stuff can only go so far on a boat with lots of witnesses.
  • engine off (EVs?) – Turn off your engine after you’ve parked. You’re not going anywhere, and neither are your temporary neighbors who will have to smell your exhaust. Hmm. Do drivers of electric vehicles have to worry about such things?
  • stock up – That character described above probably carries the commuter’s equivalent of the ten essentials: pillow, blanket, hat, food, water, book, maybe a game, probably a camera (whales happen), phone (duh), and possibly some cleaning cloths to tidy up the car
  • stay in line – As you approach the ferry there are signs telling you which lane to get into, and to not cut in line. It is hard to be sneaky when the person you just cut off is now right behind you, will follow you to the terminal, they may have additional witnesses, and you’re driving to a location frequently staffed by State Troopers. Patience is cheaper.
  • stay close to your car – Whether while waiting to board or while onboard don’t stray too far. All of those people parked behind you will be understandably upset if it’s time to move and they can’t because of you. That extra ice cream cone or yet another photo can be appealing, but hey, you’ve got a job to do, or at least some of them do.
  • did you go before you left? – The ferries have bathrooms! Yay! Such a relief. The ferry terminals have bathrooms. Ah, that’s good too. But, if that boat is rolling, your trip to the head might be an adventure. If you’re in line and you’re close to the terminal, also good. But, if you’re three boats back and in a line that’s a long way from privacy, you might really wish you went to the bathroom before you left – unless of course you don’t mind losing your place in line.
  • drive around or stay in line – This one takes some experience, but eventually regular riders get an idea of how long the wait will be. Considering which part of the island or mainland you’re trying to get to does it make more sense to drive up and around and over the bridge? The mainland has traffic, too. In line can be confining, but it is a great place to practice patience. Driving around provides a feeling of being in control; but drive defensively, don’t miss the right exit, and hope the traffic flows. Of course, with enough time, maybe find a good (enough) restaurant, maybe one with a view of the ferry line, and definitely one with a bathroom. Locals can tell you about the good-old-days when the Mukilteo ferry parking lot was right beside places to eat, or drink, or both.
  • driveways – Don’t block the driveways. The ferry lines can stretch past neighborhoods, parks, stores, schools, bus stops. They’ve marked where you shouldn’t sit and idle. Oh yeah, don’t idle while stopped. It’s annoying, at least. 
  • be read to pay – It would seem simple: drive up, pay a fee, drive on. Well, yes, and maybe you can pay in advance online, and it is good to know if your vehicle is too long, short, tall, or heavy; whether you or your passengers qualify for age or other discounts. During the pandemic the staff got creative with putting card readers on a stick. Just like a a drive-through, don’t drop any of it. And if you buy a roundtrip, don’t lose the second ticket. (And to whoever at the ski resort found a return ticket, you’re welcome to it. They don’t expire immediately, so use it as an excuse to come over and visit. (Bonus: There are different rates for pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, etc.)
  • buses – Buses service both sides, sort of, usually, kind of. It is good that the local transit systems try to coordinate bus and train schedules to match the ferry schedules, but each agency has its own constraints, so it is good to check with what is really going to be there when you’re there. Some patience may be required.
  • pedestrians – The ferries carry more than cars. There are people who, gasp, walk or pedal rather than go vroom vroom. Don’t be surprised if the cars don’t get to move until people walk from the terminal to the ferry or from the ferry to the terminal. Also don’t be surprised if that’s how the crew gets there and back, again. 
  • nature happens – Practice patience or griping or both. Coupeville riders are familiar with cancellations because of tides or currents. Both routes run into wind and waves, though Coupeville catches the worst. Sometimes that’s a delay, maybe as a fog burns off. Sometimes that’s a cancellation, which can mean staying in Port Townsend overnight – an appealing though pricey possibility.
  • people happen – The ferries have schedules, but the ferry system is smart enough to know that sometimes the boats must move Now. Medical emergencies happen. Staff issues arise. There was even a time that a regular rider who usually used a bus drove their truck instead then out of habit walked off, got on the bus, and left their truck on board. Seems innocent enough, but the police had to assume the worst and check it for dangerous stuff, while the crew had to prepare to tow it off the vessel. And no, they didn’t just shove it overboard. The fish wouldn’t like that.
  • photos – The area is gorgeous. Whales might show up. The Navy or cruise ships may come by. It’s human nature to go to the front of the boat to feel the wind as if it was some movie scene. The views don’t fade, but the need to get outside the car might. So, yeah, go get those shots. Social media will thank you (indirectly). Don’t drop the camera. Remember other people want their photos too. 
  • exercise – Remember the expert at napping? Other locals head upstairs and use the time to walk laps around the deck. Take your pick of clockwise or counterclockwise. Be contrarian and maybe see someone who was half a lap behind you the whole time.
  • work or play or nap – Others head upstairs to find a seat, maybe their favorite, and read, or visit, or work, or work on a crossword puzzle, or work on a book (reading or writing). Depending on the season and the world in general, the galley may be open too. 

At this point the most experienced riders are reading this list and editing and embellishing. (You are encouraged to add your notes in the Comment section.) Carpoolers see one world. Motorcyclists congregate. Bicyclists compare notes between commuters and long-haul touring riders. Pedestrians know what to pack, and know how much they can carry and how much to leave at home. And then there’s the possibility of a passenger only ferry between Langley, Hat Island, and Everett. That’ll be a new set of rules.

It circles back to the System. The Washington State Ferry System has a web site with advice for first-time riders, and they also have an app (check your app store for WSDOT). Web sites are updated frequently enough that they can tell you whether there are spaces left, the reservation status for the Coupeville run, and whether the schedules are shifted. You can sign up for Ferry Alerts by visiting their site, but sometimes it is more convenient to follow the system on Twitter, or some other social media site. But for real-time ferry line lengths, sometimes you just have to look at the camera feed, or listen to the updates posted by folks inline. Just don’t be surprised if the status is given in terms of whether the line has stretched to DQ or Camp Casey rather than something official like times or the number of boats you’ll have to wait for.

Every place has its unspoken rules. That’s part of traveling. As usual, take hints from the locals. There’s no need to mimic them, but they have also already figured out how to adjust and adapt to the system. And really, don’t cut in line, do set your parking brake, and turn off your car alarm. Oh yeah, and did you go to the bathroom before you left?

One thought on “Not First Time Ferry Riders

  1. And stories of commuting: “I walked off the ferry in Clinton and caught the bus, then realized I had driven on” (it happens); or “I caught the bus to Langley, the realized I had parked at Patty’s” (I gave her a ride back down there.


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