Time that traffic! Or just chill. There are three main ways to get to and from the island: Deception Pass Bridge, Coupeville Ferry, Clinton Ferry. All three have traffic issues, especially in tourist season. The bottleneck of the bridge is random. It is hard to predict when it will slow or clear. The ferries, however, have schedules that give islanders a chance of knowing when to expect a surge or a pause. On some weekends it is different for all of them.
The Washington State Ferry System is a mobile icon. The boats (not ships, for some reason) are part of marketing campaigns, act as backdrops, and emphasize the maritime nature of Puget Sound. See a photo of a ferry, think Seattle.
Well, Whidbey isn’t Seattle, but we have our ferries, too.
You probably already know that the system is one of the largest in the nation. You’ve probably seen the tourist photos of people pretending they’re on the bow of a cruise liner in a romantic movie proclaiming that they are the royalty of the world! – temporarily. (About 35 minutes for the ride to Port Townsend and about 15 minutes for the ride to Mukilteo. Enjoy it while it lasts.)
Many islanders only occasionally see the sea from one of the boats. Everything (almost everything) most people need is available on the island. If it isn’t on the island it can probably be shipped here (ironic wording). Even if it is on the island and more expensive because of it, buying local can still be cheaper that paying the ferry fees. (Though those Costco runs can be worth the effort.)
The way many islanders are aware of the ferries is the wave of traffic that surges through intersections whenever a full ferry disgorges yet another load of cars. Islanders can notice a long ferry line, but that’s easily ignored – as long as you don’t have to be in it.
When a ferry docks, the vehicles drive off the boat in ones or twos creating a long line of cars and trucks freed to do what they came here to do – and it can seem like forever for them to get around to doing it. Sit at a traffic light and sit and sit as the parade passes by.
That parade can seem enormous, but there are limits. The boats can’t carry more vehicles than they have space for. Today that’s nominally 144 (Suquamish), 124 (Issaquah), and 64 (Salish). Those aren’t the biggest ones in the System. Those are the Jumbo Mark IIs that can carry 202 vehicles and 2,499 passengers. (What? They couldn’t squeeze in one more person to make it a round 2,500?)
For the really bored or anxious, that means the line of cars and trucks coming out of Clinton is limited to about 144. Consider it an opportunity to practice meditation by turning the counting of the cars into a mantra. Passengers can use it as an opportunity to count sheep (which is a interesting dual metaphor for later consideration.) The line is slightly shorter for boats like the Issaquah, and the line is much shorter for the Coupeville ferry run.
The Coupeville route has a tough job. Without getting into the specifics, the Coupeville terminal is shallow and short. That means it can only accommodate shorter boats, hence, about half the cars. Of course, the time it takes to load and unload can grow as confused drivers switch lanes as they exit.
Being shallower is really what makes it a tough route. There’s not as much room for keels and ballast and the things can make the ride smoother. Then, challenge the boat to cross possibly the wildest water in the system, including having to play dodge-em with all of the Sound’s ocean-going traffic. It can be a bumpy ride, or a gloriously smooth one; but it makes that schedule a bit tougher to time.
The Clinton route, however, is better known for a reliable schedule (pandemics permitting). That also means that islanders have a better chance of guessing when Not to try to cross the main road, when it makes more sense to stick to backroads, or when to expect to sit and enjoy a display of what styles people are driving this year.
BTW If you have to ride the ferry, especially during busy times, it is handy to have the system’s app. The app can estimate if the next boat is full, and can display where the boats are. Do you really have time to visit the restrooms at the terminal, or should you wait until you’re on board (and hopefully not rocking and rolling too much?)