Expecting the unexpected simply routine for WSF ferry crews
Professional Mariner|June/July 2020
Washington State Fer-ries (WSF) Capt. Joel Michelson barely finished explaining how every Elliott Bay passage is a little different when he got a message proving his point. Down below, a passenger was unconscious and suffering a seizure.
Casey Conley

Michelson increased Puyallup’s speed to about 19 knots to hasten its arrival into downtown Seattle. For 90 tense seconds, he coordinated the emergency response with the crew and made arrangements for paramedics to meet the ship at the dock. Finally, word came that the man was conscious and stable. Michelson gave a reassuring look to the wheelhouse personnel. “OK,” the captain said, “he’s awake.”

“We have medical emergencies often,” said Michelson, an 18-year ferry system employee. “When you move this many thousands of people, you are going to get heart attacks, seizures, you name it. I think I have seen everything except somebody giving birth, but other (crewmembers) have.”

WSF is the largest ferry operator in the United States. Its 22 passenger and vehicle ferries carried nearly 24 million people in 2019. The system’s 1,900 employees include hundreds of mariners working in the wheelhouse, on deck and below in the engine rooms.

Michelson led 15 crew aboard Puyallup on a brisk, breezy late February day. Morning fog nearly burned off by the 0935 departure from Colman Dock in downtown Seattle to Bainbridge Island. The roughly 6.5-mile run across Elliott Bay takes 35 minutes each way, and the ferries run almost 20 hours a day.

Puyallup is one of three Jumbo Mark II-class ferries. They are the largest in the WSF fleet and the second-largest double-ended ferries in the world. The 460-foot behemoths can hold 202 vehicles and 2,499 passengers. Tacoma and Wenatchee are the other two in the class. All three were built in the late 1990s.

Michelson was describing Puyallup’s attributes when chief mate Mike Edwards, positioned about 250 feet away in the aft-facing wheelhouse, guided the vessel off Colman Dock. The crossing itself is straight, and mostly straightforward, much of the way. Ferries make an S-turn into the tight confines of Eagle Harbor during the final approach to Bainbridge Island.

Michelson speaks highly of the Jumbo Mark II series. The 16,000-hp workhorses have plenty of power and typically cruise at 18 knots. They also are incredibly maneuverable despite their size.

“We have a propeller on both ends (of the ferry) and a rudder on both ends, so when you get down to a certain speed, you can walk the boat and spin the boat in a spot almost,” he said.

Michelson is something of a ferry lifer. His father and grandfather worked as WSF captains, and he recalled tagging along on voyages as a child. He started working on deck in 2002 and became a mate in 2010. He moved up to captain about two years ago.

“There was never any pressure to come do this, but it was cool having a dad as a ferry boat captain,” Michelson said. “I got a photography degree and an art history degree from Western Washington (University) in Bellingham and was working here at the same time. I just decided I liked this better.”

Deck officers work 10 days in a row, followed by four days off. Puyallup has overnight accommodations, although Michelson and Edwards live close enough to the Bainbridge Island terminal to spend their off-time at home. Alarm clocks ring as early as 0315 on work-days, but the trade-off is they get home by midafternoon.

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