For those who’ve never sailed on the Washington State Ferries, it’s hard to imagine the setting for my writing residency. I’m “writing the interisland” as the WSF’s first writer-in-residence aboard the M.V. Tillikum. My “office” measures 310 feet in length, can carry over 1000 passengers and 87 vehicles, and travels 13 knots (about 15 mph) as it cruises among four San Juan islands: Lopez, Shaw, Orcas, and San Juan/Friday Harbor. The ferry leaves its home berth in Friday Harbor each morning at 6:05 and makes 5 circles until it returns to Friday Harbor at 8:30 pm.
The WSF is considered part of the state’s “marine highways” system with a fleet of 29 ferries and 10 ferry routes. This makes it the largest ferry system in the U.S., the third largest in the world, and the third largest transit system in Washington State. For the San Juans, these vessels are the only practical link for vehicles, goods, and services between the islands and the mainland.
The ferries transport somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 million passengers and 10 million vehicles each year, but most of them ride vessels on the waterways nearer to Seattle. Even on the interisland, though, there’s no shortage of people-watching opportunities.
System-wide, there are 20 ferry terminals in 8 counties, plus British Columbia. When I’m in my resident role, I begin at the Lopez ferry terminal (my home) with stops on Shaw, Orcas, and San Juan.
It typically takes 10 to 15 minutes for the ferry to off-load vehicles and passengers and re-load, so I just stay on board while at the dock.
The waters these ferries ply are known as the Salish Sea. How it got its name will be the subject of a later post. For now, here are a few details from The Salish Sea – Jewel of the Pacific Northwest (Sasquatch Books, 2015):
- The Salish Sea is one of the world’s largest inland seas, with a total marine area of about 7,000 square miles and water depths in coastal fjords exceeding 2,000 feet.
- The sea straddles the international border between Washington State and British Columbia, Canada and includes inland marine waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound, and the Strait of George; southern end of Vancouver Island, the San Juans, the Gulf Islands, and smaller islands.
- It’s a seascape of deep fjords, rocky islands, sheltered bays and inlets, and verdant estuaries nourished by vast networks of braided rivers.
- Nearly 8 million people live and work along the coast and the mainland watersheds of the Salish Sea or one of its many islands.
It’s no surprise I have views like this as I write.
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