A ferry merry Christmas | Ferry Fare | December

In case you’re wondering, those white things floating north of the ferry slip aren’t sedentary geese. They’re guest mooring buoys that were put in by the Port this summer.

The quirky Kulshan

The idea of building low cost, car-only ferries instead of our traditional car/passenger ferries started with Governor Langlie when Washington bought the Black Ball Line’s ferry system in 1951. WSF tried out this out in 1970 with the car-only Kulshan from San Diego. Kulshan had an island in the center with a pilot house, toilets and nothing else. While this open-air ferry worked in sunny San Diego it flopped in our NW weather. Riders report that on rough crossings waves were “crashing over her main deck bulwark” and on one occasion “a logging truck lost its load.” Kulshan’s career high point was playing a part with Debra Winger in the movie “Officer and a Gentleman.” Read Rex Carlaw’s nearby article Washington’s experiences with Kulshan and what happened to her afterwards.

Sound crossings

So why do our ferries cross Puget Sound the ways they do? At times it appears that the boat’s being hijacked to Tacoma (eek!) before it lurches its way over to Kingston.

These apparently bizarre boat behaviors have a reasonable explanation. It’s the rules that our ferryboats must follow when crossing Puget Sound.

Between Kingston and Edmonds an invisible two lane water highway runs up and down the Sound for the big commercial ships. The northbound lane is on the Edmonds side and the south bound lane on the Kingston side. Ships using this “highway” are tracked by the radars of USCG’s Vessel Traffic System (VTS) and are advised of other traffic by radio from the VTS office in the Seattle Coast Guard station at pier 36 (just south of Coleman dock). Since the large Deep Draft Vessels take miles to stop and are difficult to maneuver, the ferries want to give the big guys lots of room.

When our ferries cross the VTS lanes, they must use a course that is approximately perpendicular to the VTS lanes. This is the same idea as pedestrians would use to cross a land highway. Crossing vessels should also stay well clear of the ships using the traffic lane. In general, the ferries must either cross at least a mile ahead of the large ships, or maneuver to cross behind them.

For these reasons you may find a ferry running down one side of the Sound to cross behind a ship that might at the time still be a distance away.

When ferries and other ships meet head to head they are driven much like cars. Each ship typically turns to the right so that they pass each other on their port (left hand) sides. To prevent collisions it’s critical for each ship to behave in a predictable way. Admiralty law is littered with collision cases where, for reasons that seemed good at the time, the skipper chose to pass on the right and was found to be liable for the damage. Where we do see ferries passing starboard to starboard (on the right hand), the boats are well off of each other’s track and no turning is involved.

Our not-so-nimble ferries must also respect the laws of physics. A tight ferry turn has a a quarter-mile radius. They also take a quarter-mile to stop and need quarter-mile to align themselves when approaching the dock. So that’s why you see them turning well away from the dock giving the shallows and other boats a wide berth.

Want more?

To get the same exciting ferry reading that your Kingston Ferry Advisory Committee gets, join our mailing list by e-mailing elliottmoore@comcast.net. Also email if there’s something less boring that you’d like to read in this column. Thanks to Mark Libby for the ferry navigation info.