All About That Boat // Bainbridge Reflects on Ferry Life

By Angela Knight

Ferries are the warp and woof of life on Bainbridge. Their bossy horns punctuate our days and nights. Ferries determine the flights we take and the ones we miss. They tell us whether we can order the chocolate torte and that second glass of wine, or whether we need to grab the check and hoof it to the terminal. They carry sleepy passengers to their jobs in the morning. When the commuter boats return home, traffic snakes up Highway 305 and clogs Winslow Way. Ferries demand our attention and spark our imagination. They also urge us to slow down and enjoy the ride.

A Typical Morning

It’s quiet in the wheelhouse. Massive engines rumble, holding the vessel in place and churning the blue-green water into soft swirls. While passengers and vehicles stream onto the boat, chief mate Jake Azwar watches from behind his Ray-Bans. Captain Russell Fee relaxes for a few moments in a tall chair, facing Mount Rainier and Puget Sound. He looks official in a white shirt with gold and black epaulets. Before the boat is fully loaded, he’ll walk to the twin wheelhouse on the other end to make the next crossing to Seattle.

This is what’s known as “dwell time.” It is that stretch when the vessel rests at the dock before beginning its next trip across the Sound. Once in Seattle, it will start the process over again, crossing the 8.6 miles, while its sister ferry goes the opposite direction, making a nautical loop.

Fee has been sailing this same route for 10 years. “Every trip is different,” he said.

During the course of our journey, we learned how quickly the boat could stop: 60 seconds, which seems surprising for such a large vessel. A tour boasted engine room floors so clean we could have eaten breakfast off them. Ferry worker Brian Jonsson modeled firefighting gear, including a breathing apparatus that made him sound like Darth Vader. There was even a rescue-boat drill, which a passenger immediately posted on Facebook. Everyone we met was proud of their boat and the work they do.

As we approached Seattle, Azwar, still wearing his sunglasses, took the controls from quartermaster Kellie Anderson. He docked the big boat with a slight bump or two. “Nice landing, Jake,” Fee said.

When I asked if he liked to sail during his off-hours, Fee joked, “I’m not a boat person.” His two young sons inherited their dad’s sense of humor; whenever Fee brings them to visit the wheelhouse they yell, “We’re going to crash!” as the boat docks.

As we stood at the bow, Fee looked out over the Sound. “How can you get tired of that?” he asked.

Back in Time

The Jumbo II Class Puyallup, Tacoma and Wenatchee —ferries normally assigned to the Bainbridge-to-Seattle run—owe their existence to early wooden-hull, steam-powered vessels like the Virginia V . Once part of the infamous Mosquito Fleet, the Virginia V is now a National Historic Landmark Vessel moored at Lake Union Park. It and its sister steamers, all privately owned, once swarmed the Sound, providing ferry service in the early 1900s. The crews routinely raced and fought one another for business; each captain had a distinctive boat whistle.

By the late 1920s, the ferry system had been consolidated into two companies, and in 1935 a single company was left afloat: Puget Sound Navigation. After World War II, a labor strike shut it down. Washington State Ferries (WSF) took over the company’s assets in 1951. Today, WSF operates the largest ferry system in the nation; worldwide it is the fourth largest. The Bainbridge-to-Seattle route is WSF’s busiest, carrying six million riders per year.

Ann Combs knows lots of ferry stories—she’s lived on Bainbridge since 1945—and she shares them with visitors to the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum. Her stories are part of island lore as much as the books, clippings, cartoons, photos, ferry schedules and other memorabilia contained in the museum’s library.

Combs recalled a time when most islanders didn’t own cars. Her mother used to take the ferry to Seattle on Wednesdays so she could do the shopping and sneak in a visit to Slenderella, a salon that, according to a 1959 Time article, “played soft music while vibrating tables shook excess inches off flabby matrons.”

Combs has the comic timing of a pro. Here’s another story: A man’s ashes were supposed to be scattered at sea. His family decided to toss them off the ferry’s bow. Later, a friend told Combs, “‘Ann, you should have been there…the ashes went down Margaret Clark’s bosom.’”

According to WSF spokesperson Broch Bender, there were 38 memorial events held on the Bainbridge-to-Seattle route last year. They require coordination with WSF in advance, but once a memorial has been cleared, Fee said they encourage people to “take all the time they need.”

Some ferry stories sound like myths or mysteries: Boeing engineers holding kite-flying contests off the stern? (It happened, according to Combs.) Who puts those fresh flowers in the women’s restrooms? (Ferry worker Janelle Eller.) Does the announcer say, “No smoking or bathing” or “No smoking or vaping”? (Vaping.)

There are the hearty walkers who circumnavigate the decks, and the sleepy face-planters who plop facedown on the bench with their bums in the air. And the women’s restroom on the morning commuter runs can look like a floating backstage dressing room. The legendary Seagull Man taught seagulls to perform tricks for food. How about the time the Walla Walla grounded on the sandbar in Eagle Harbor? And who can forget the Tacoma’s meltdown last year?

Commuters drive on in cars and arrive on bikes and then walk off the ferry without them.

At one time there were running bridge games, Combs said. Players left their cards behind when they disembarked and then resumed their games later that day. You wouldn’t dare sit in those seats.

Nautical Nuptials

Deborah and Ralph Cheadle jog each other’s memories in that endearing manner that couples adopt when they’ve been married for 38 years. They’ve lived in the same rambling house—surrounded by lush gardens that Deborah designed—their entire married lives.

Before the garden and the house and the three kids, they were friends. Deborah was involved with someone else then.

Ralph asked Deborah, “How can I get you away from [him]?”

She said, “You can marry me.”

After they got a marriage license, they contacted Miles Yanick, a Universal Life Minister. He said he was busy, but he could meet them on the 5:10 boat to Seattle. The couple didn’t know Yanick, so they kept asking strangers on the ferry, “Are you Miles?”

What do they remember from the onboard ceremony?

Deborah wore a parka. Ralph smoked.

Years later, Ralph found a life preserver from the Spokane on the beach. Deborah kept it for sentimental reasons. She thinks they were married on the Spokane, but Ralph swears it was the Wenatchee.

According to Bender, 11 couples will tie the knot this year on the Bainbridge-to-Seattle route. Contrary to popular belief, captains do not have the authority to conduct marriage ceremonies.

No Better Commute

“It’s a lifestyle that I love,” said Hans Griesser, describing his daily commute on the ferry. He calls it his “library, coffee, social time.”

On workdays Griesser, a product development manager, bikes the five miles from his house to the terminal to catch the 7:05. He still rides the same mountain bike he had when he was in graduate school, with a few modifications. “There’s no bad weather,” Griesser said. “There’s only bad gear.”

He’s commuted this way for 16 years. “When I hear tourists ask, ‘Could you imagine if this were your commute?’ I think, ‘It is my commute,’” he said.

After securing his bike below, he clomps upstairs to locate an empty bench where he catches 20 minutes of “glorious” sleep in the winter (he sits outside in the summer) before the “dock bump” in Seattle. On his bike, he avoids most of the hills and takes Western Avenue to meet his vanpool to Bothell.

He is an experienced commuter now, but on that first day Griesser stopped at the ticket booth because he thought he had to pay for his bike. He used to routinely run the light in Winslow, because he was freezing, until he got caught. The officer gave him a warning, but by then the ferry had left. He had to sit on the missed-the-boat bench and wait for the next one.

When asked why bicyclists ride off the ferry as if they were competing in the Tour de France, Griesser laughed. “Because the motorcycles will chase us down,” he said. He admitted that there could be a bit of “who can get to the light first” competition going on, but mainly he thinks about getting home.

Where Were You Born?

In October, contractions woke Christina Hammond. She roused her husband, Christopher, so they could make the 15-minute drive to the ferry terminal. Because this was their second child, and Christina’s contractions were 7 to 10 minutes apart, the Hammonds thought they had lots of time. “I wasn’t worried at all,” Christina said. The couple told the ticket taker that Christina was in labor, so they were immediately placed at the front of the line.

Christina’s contractions picked up as the boat started moving. When tall, rosy-cheeked second mate Scott Schrader checked on her, she told him that she would need an ambulance once the boat docked. “I was envisioning all the [traffic] lights up to Swedish,” she said. “But [Baby Zöe] had other plans.” While Christina moved from the car to a medical room upstairs, Schrader put out a call over the loud speakers. More than a dozen people volunteered, so Schrader ended up with an experienced team of doctors, nurses and EMTs.

Christina didn’t have time to be scared. A few pushes and Zöe came into the world aboard a Washington State Ferry. “I was touched by all the people who stopped their morning routines,” Christina said. “Everyone on the ferry went above and beyond.”

That’s a story Zöe will be able to tell over and over again. And she won’t be alone. For those of us who live on Bainbridge, the ferry is just another part of the story of our lives.