Welcome aboard the Washington State Ferries. May I
have your attention please?

The familiar recording issues a pleasant greeting and
several instructions as the engines throttle. The Kitsap
pulls away from the ferry slip, our view of Anacortes
fades into the mist, and we’re sailing west, bound for
Lopez Island.

Commuters sip coffee and read the day’s newspaper, a pair
of sweethearts brave the rain to pose for selfies against the
railing of the passenger deck, weekenders chase after toddlers
while managing backpacks and snacks, and a few lone
travelers pass the time by picking at the pieces of the puzzles
arranged on tables between booths. After all, cell phone
service is sometimes spotty out here. Of course, just as many
passengers opt to remain in their vehicles parked on the car
deck, dozing with their seats reclined or listening to a podcast
or the radio. Nearby, a school bus transports children eager
for the adventure of a field trip.

Perhaps few modes of public transportation inspire more
delight than travel by ferry, fewer still attract tourists. The
Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT)
Ferries Division is iconic, appearing frequently in television
shows or movies set in the Puget Sound. It is the largest ferry
system in the nation and an integral part of the state’s transit
operations, offering goods and services to nearby islands
and serving as a tourism gateway to the San Juan Islands,
Olympic Peninsula, and British Columbia.

To celebrate the ferry system’s 65th anniversary, we got
a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse at the operations aboard
the Kitsap, meeting the captain and crew and touring the
pilothouse and the engine room below deck. We’re eager to
share with our readers what we learned.

Once Upon the Water

A History of the Washington State Ferries

As long as people have lived in and around Puget
Sound, the waterways and sounds that connect us
have been busy with marine traffic. The relationship
people have to the water here is inextricable. Before first
contact, Native Americans navigated the straits and sounds of
the Salish Sea in cedar canoes. With the first settlers—mostly
traders with the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company—came
ferries and schooners that zipped from Olympia and points
south to Alaska. They became known as the Mosquito Fleet,
traversing the coast picking up and dropping off passengers,
goods, and mail. Our ferries today still follow many of the
traditional trade routes that have been in place for thousands
of years.

The first ferries to enter the Sound arrived in the 1830s.
The Beaver and the Otter were commissioned and run
by the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company, and primarily
for the fur trade with Canada. In 1888, the Beaver crashed
on rocks just offshore at what is now Stanley Park, and
pieces of the wreckage are still housed in the Vancouver
Maritime Museum.

As the Fraser Valley boomed with gold and Bellingham
became the home base for prospectors, ferry service up
and down the Fraser River to Bellingham picked up. The
ferry system took on historical significance when, in 1860,
a 14-year-old slave named Charles Mitchell stowed away
on a ferry to escape into Canada. Mitchell was seized by
authorities four miles outside Victoria and kept aboard in
“close confinement.” The black community of Victoria
prepared to welcome Mitchell, and a Canadian judge
ruled that in British waters, the young man should be
granted freedom. He was eventually taken into custody
by Canadian officials who brought him to Canada to live out
his days as a free man. There are reports he returned to
Maryland to find his family after the Civil War, but there
is no real documentation of what happened to him after his
successful escape.

Paddle, paddle, George E. Starr, How we wonder
where you are. Leaves Seattle at half past ten. Gets
to Bellingham, God knows when.

The Gold Rush years were full of tales and stories of storms
and ghosts. As the ferries churned through the Sound, two
major ferry companies emerged: the Puget Sound Navigation
Company and the Kitsap County Transportation Company. In
1935, the Puget Sound Navigation Company put the Kitsap
County Transportation Company out of business, and in
1951, what we think of as the Washington State Ferries
was formed. The fleet was expanded in the 1950s and 1960s.
The next big expansion happened in 1997 with the arrival
of the Jumbo Mark II-class vessels, Tacoma, Puyallup,
and Wenatchee, each of which carries 2,500 passengers
and 202 vehicles.

Notes from the Pilothouse

Meet Captain Doug Sowdon


Captain Doug Sowdon’s career with the WSDOT Ferries
Division set sail in 1977, when he took a summer
job aboard a ferry to support himself during college.
He recalled loving the ferry ride to his family’s
property on Lopez Island while growing up, so he
figured he’d enjoy the work. He was right. The
summer job was so enjoyable that he left the first
“suit and tie” job he landed after graduation in
order to return to life on the water. Eventually
he worked his way “up through the hawsepipe,”
from the cabin to the pilothouse, a process that
can take more than a decade. “It’s a good job,”
he said.

(Captain Sowdon told us that the hawsepipe refers to a
pipe in the bow section of a ship through which the anchor
chain passes. The phrase “through the hawsepipe” refers to
officers who do not attend a maritime academy, but rather,
like Sowdon, climb the ranks while accumulating sea time
and passing qualifying courses and examinations.)

Sowdon met his wife, Betsy Carroll, while working on
the ferry. They met as deckhands and both worked their way
up together. Carroll was the third woman in Washington
State to achieve the rank of ferryboat captain. Now retired,
she wrote a graphic novel, Course Made Good, about her
career in the maritime industry. When asked how many
women captains currently work in the ferry system, Sowdon
answered, “Not enough.” It takes time to rise through the
ranks, and Sowdon said there just aren’t that many women
in line. Though, he pointed to Port Captain Beth Stowell,
the first female port captain, and expressed hope that her
example would inspire others.

Ferry captains are called upon to do everything from
commanding a vessel and ensuring passenger safety to
taking courses on new electronic navigational equipment
to attending ribbon cuttings, as when the Anacortes/Sidney,
B.C. route re-opens each spring. They also are responsible
for leading the crew, as Sowdon is for the crew of the No. 3
Anacortes vessel, though the crew re-bids for assignments for
each season’s schedule. When Sowdon’s crew joined us in the
pilothouse, his leadership skills shone.


“The crew is a lot of fun. I like the people,” Sowdon said.
“What you may not know is that there is a lot that has to
go right in order for this boat to work. We do checks every
morning, and every job is important. The engine crew does
all kinds of amazing things to keep us going.”

Even as he expressed admiration for his crew’s expertise,
he told cautionary tales of good-natured teasing, especially
when asked to teach us a bit of nautical jargon. Don’t fall for
it if another crewmember asks you to head below deck and
ask the chief engineer for “relative bearing grease.” Spoiler:
it doesn’t exist. A relative bearing is a navigational term
that describes another boat or ship’s position relative to the
ferry. Similarly, it is not advisable to attempt to gather a “fog
sample,” even if you’re handed a garbage bag along with the
serious request.

Captain Sowdon invited us to watch the ferry land at
Lopez Island from the vantage point of the pilothouse. It’s
one of his favorite parts of the job. “It’s fun landing the
boat,” he said. “If you’ve done a few thousand of those, the
experience loses only a little glimmer. But it gets exciting in
the wind or if some other challenge.”

Even though it was an ordinary landing without any
special challenges, it was indeed exciting to watch the
landing alongside the captain, enjoying the front row view
from the pilothouse.

Meet the Crew


Mid-morning, Captain Sowdon’s crew gathers to participate in
the Seattle Times “Super Quiz,” a trivia section of the
daily paper. Chief Mate Brandon Moser rings the bell to
call the assembly to attention before the captain proceeds
with reading the quiz aloud. The day of our ride along on the
Kitsap, the quiz topic was “inventors.”

We won’t admit to how few answers we guessed correctly,
but the crew astounded us by correctly matching all
the inventors to their devices—identifying everyone from
Elias Howe, who invented the sewing machine, to Linus
Yale, Jr., who invented the lock. Answers were met with
the ringing of the bell and cheers: “Pulled it out of
the cobwebs, Bobby, way to go!” We even found out bonus
pieces of trivia. Did you know that “Ahoy!” was the
first word spoken through the telephone? In honor of
our favorite crew, we present a quiz for our readers. Can
you identify the crewmember title if given a summary of
their duties?

Super Crew Super Quiz

1. A ____________________ is responsible for lubricating
engines and mechanical systems.

2. Sharing navigation responsibilities with the captain
is all in a day’s work for the ____________.

3. Thanks to the _______________ _______________, you can
be sure that the ferry vessel is spic and span.

4. The _________ ______________ sees to the loading and
unloading of vehicles.

5. Below deck, the __________ _____________ ensures that the
vessel’s engines and mechanical systems are all in
tip-top shape.

6. The ______ ______________ ___________ is the AB foreman
and directs vehicle loading and unloading.

7. The buck stops here. The _____________________ assumes
responsibility for full command of the vessel and passenger

8. Moving up the ranks, the ____-____ assists the mate at
the helm and keeps watch.

9. You’ll find the ___________ in the engine room cleaning
work spaces and machinery.

Answers: 1. Oiler. 2. Mate. 3. Ordinary Seaman. 4. Able Seaman. 5. Chief Engineer. 6. Able
Seaman Bosun. 7. Master/Captain. 8. AB-OM. 9. Wiper

Chief Mate Brandon Moser


Chief Mate Moser is passionate about the
history of ferries. He and his husband Steven
Pickens run the website evergreenfleet.com,
which documents the vessels, both current
and from our storied ferry past. Pickens has
also published Ferries of Puget Sound, a
compendium of historical information about
the ferry system drawn from his personal
collection of photos, postcards, and other
memorabilia. They not only document the
WSF, they also include San Diego, Alaska,
and Oregon ferries as well. Moser has given
presentations to the Anacortes Chamber of
Commerce and other organizations on the
history of the ferry system.

Moser is quite the collector, from an old
Geiger counter he picked up in the Hanford
gift shop to the extensive memorabilia from
the ferries, he is a huge fan of history.
He wears the traditional hat of the ferry
uniform, of which there are only a handful
still worn today. His cap bears a chinstrap
that belonged to a retired captain who has
since passed away. Captain Larry Brewster
was among the last captains of the Black Ball
Line before the formation of the WSF system.
“We’re a very traditional bunch here.”

He is likely the only man in the world to have
calibrated a Geiger counter using a living
cat. His cat received radiation as part of a
treatment for a thyroid condition, and Moser
whipped out his Geiger counter to test her
levels. Another true Moser fact? He is the
bell–ringer for the Super Quiz.

Big Moments on the Ferries

Unlike, say, local buses or airplanes, ferries are sought
out for life’s biggest moments—couples marry on
them, families scatter loved ones’ ashes into the
waters of Puget Sound from them; even babies are (well,
okay, accidentally) born on them. The Washington State
Department of Transportation has some guidelines and
recommendations for those who want to plan a special
occasion on a ferry. For those unplanned births, well,
you’re in good hands.


Each deck hand in the Washington State Ferries system is
trained in emergency response, and though they use their
training for plucking stranded boaters from waters or
scooping up overwhelmed kayakers, every once in a while,
they are called upon to assist in a birth—a skill they also
have. As reported in the Seattle Times in 2012, baby Lucy
made an early appearance on board the Bainbridge-Seattle
route. Lucky for her mom, there just happened to be an
OBGYN nurse and two EMTs on board in addition to the
ferry crew. Baby Lucy arrived safely, and she and her mom
were met at the ferry dock by Seattle Fire’s emergency
crew, who rushed them to Swedish Medical Center. Mom and
Lucy were in ship-shape and doing great. Two years
later, also on the Bainbridge route
(bainbridgereview.com), Zoë Hammond made an appearance
on October 22. The 2nd Mate Scott Schrader was informed
when the Hammond family boarded that mom Christina was
in labor. The ferry crew requested medical help over
the loudspeaker, and had so many professionals respond,
they had to turn some away. Captain Russell Fee fired
up all four engines and raced to the Seattle dock, but
Baby Zoë didn’t wait. A year later, Zoë and her family
celebrated her first birthday on the ferry with the crew.


Speaking of birthdays on ferries, yes, you can celebrate your
special day onboard. Though you may bring your own food,
outside catering is not allowed. The Washington State Ferries
likes to know the time and route so they can alert the crew.
They recommend traveling at non-peak times, and scratch
the birthday candles—no open flames are allowed on ferries.


No, it is not true that every ship captain can perform a legal
wedding ceremony. The captains on board the Washington
State ferries, for example, cannot marry you. But you can get
married on a ferry. The Department of Transportation
recommends that you aim for non-peak hours and let them
know the exact time so the captain and crew can be prepared.
Unless you want all the commuters as your wedding party,
small weddings make the most sense. Outside catering is not
allowed, and you can’t get married in the private areas of the
ferries (darn, no engine room nuptials). You are on a public
ferry, so there aren’t places to change clothes and the loading
and unloading of cars at destinations might preclude being
able to drive on (if you’re ceremony includes dancing, long
toasts, drunken stumbling, etc.). Photographers should be
aware that pathways and walkways need to be clear for the
crew in the event of an emergency (now there’s a memorable
wedding story…the Great Storm on Your Wedding Day),
and there may be other logistics that you need to check with
the ferry system. About 20 weddings take place aboard ferries
each year.


Worried about ferry safety? Don’t be. Not once in the
history of the WSDOT ferry system has there been a sinking
or a fatality. In fact, because crew members are trained in
emergency response, there were more than 145 lifesaving
events credited to ferry personnel in 2015.


A moving tribute to a family member who was close to the
water, or wanted to be, is to scatter their ashes from a ferry.
With more than a hundred memorials a year, the Washington
State Ferries requires a reservation at least five days in
advance. The ashes must be contained in a biodegradable
container (called a journey urn). Unlike scenes in movies,
you cannot open the urn and scatter ashes, you simply
release the urn. The limited routes for memorials are
Seattle-Bremerton, Mukilteo-Clinton, Seattle-Bainbridge, Port
Townsend-Coupeville, Edmonds-Kingston, and
Anacortes-Friday Harbor.

Animal Sightings

“We see everything you could imagine,” Captain Sowdon
told us. “Deer swimming around, whales, sea lions,
seals, even sea elephants with their little trunks.
I’ve seen them twice.”

We were starting to get our sea legs so we questioned
the veracity of the captain’s claims about the sea
elephants, but Chief Mate Moser assisted. Moser said,
“It’s a real critter. Elephant seals are very, very large.”
“A year or two ago we saw a pod of white-sided dolphins,
a couple hundred of them, and they’re incredible,” Captain
Sowdon said. “Though they’re more common further north.”


Often Seen
Harbor Seal
California Sea Lion
Harbor Porpoise
Dall’s Porpoise

Occasionally Seen
Gray Whale
River Otter
Minke Whale
Stellar Sea Lion

Rarely Seen
Humpback Whale
Pacific White-sided Dolphin
Sea Otter

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"As long as people have lived in and around the Puget Sound, the waterways and sounds that connect us have been busy with marine traffic. "