Someone said my name as the ferry sat in the berth in Friday Harbor. “The writer is still on board,” a woman’s voice said. “It’s Iris,” another replied, “Iris is the writer.” I left my writing post on the Tillikum to find out who was talking about me, and there were crewmembers Teri and Suzanne. “We’re gonna’ have a fire drill,” Suzanne said.
A few seconds later, a bell sounded—a long jangle lower in tone than a classic telephone ring, and about ten decibels louder. I returned to my writing spot to watch what would unfold, and Teri trotted to a passenger seat near the outdoor deck.
Soon she approached me, carrying two orange life vests. “You can be my guinea pig,” she said, handing me one of them. As she donned the other vest, she instructed me to loosen the straps on mine, remove my glasses, slide the vest over my head, and tug the straps for a snug fit.
“If you had to jump into the water,” she demonstrated, “you would hold onto the top of the vest so it doesn’t ride up, and cross your legs at the ankles.” I gulped, then followed her actions as I watched a spray of water shoot out over the ferry’s port side. Teri continued, “When you’re in the water, bring your knees to your chest to conserve energy. Or if you see a log, you could drape your knees over it.”
After a photo, I removed the vest, grateful this was only a drill. Wearing that vest, I felt a combination of peril and hope. Three shorter loud jangles signaled the drill’s conclusion. “If we have a real emergency,” Teri said, “I’ll get you to help people.”
As I returned to my desk, Suzanne strode through the cabin, dressed in full firefighting gear. She’d been wielding the fire hose on the upper deck. “We do these drills once a week,” she explained, perspiration glistening her face. She seemed as relieved as I that this was only a practice.
When I embarked on this writing residency aboard the interisland ferry, I remembered an essay I’d written months earlier called, “Writer in a Bulletproof Vest.” It was published in The Wayfarer Literary Magazine, and you can read it here . The piece is a reflection about the vulnerability I feel when writing; most writers I know describe the same sense of being exposed, no matter the genre in which they write.
In the essay, I describe yearning for a bulletproof vest like actor Nathan Fillion wore in his television role as novelist (and part-time detective with NYPD) Rick Castle. The black vest he donned whenever he joined the “real” detectives on a crime investigation was emblazoned with the word WRITER in bold, white letters. I figured one of those would strengthen me to write about fears, doubts, and beliefs.
When I told writing friends about my desire to be a writer-in-residence on the interisland ferry, I thought again of Castle’s bulletproof vest. My purpose in this residency is to focus my writing on the Salish Sea – the inland waters that surround my home and that carry this vessel among Washington’s San Juan Islands. I fear for the wellbeing of the sea, and all of the life that lives in and around it.
The deaths this summer of an Orca whale newborn and of J50, two whales part of the Southern Resident Killer Whales that call the Salish Sea home, brought worldwide attention to the impact of pollution, noise, and diminishing food sources on these mammals. Like the spotted owl and over-harvesting of old growth forests, the potential extinction of Orca whales demands action by humans on their behalf. Every time I go to my desk, either on the Tillikum or in my home office, I’m conscious of the threats to the environment.
The truth is, we’re all endangered, and we all need metaphorical life vests. I hope mine will sustain me to foster hope and courage for all of us to speak for the whales and other cetaceans, the Chinook/king salmon, anemones, urchins, shrimp, sea stars, and rockfish. Each time I ride and write, I’m aware this is not a drill.