Be safe: Columnist urges caution when boating near state ferries | Ferry Fare

To check out how a boater can avoid getting hit by ferries and other big ships, I was graciously given a morning ride on the Spokane by Capt. Tullis’ E watch

Mark those calendars

WSF employees are coming to town on July 1 to talk about how they intend to go about planning our ferry future: boats, service, fares, strategies, etc. It’s important to weigh in, as we’ll be living with the results.  Details to follow in July’s FerryFare.

Summertime survival

To check out how a boater can avoid getting hit by ferries and other big ships, I was graciously given a morning ride on the Spokane by Capt. Tullis’ E watch. Thanks, Cap. The pilothouse was immaculate.  (I’m used to midwatch debris and coffee cup rings on the bridge at that hour).

It’s all business up there, with the skipper or first mate totally focused on the ships and boats out there — what they’re doing now and will likely do.

Up in the pilot house, you can’t see what’s closer than about 50 feet from the ferry.  If they can’t see you, they can’t avoid you. For paddle boards, kayaks and other small craft, it may be cool to go under the dock but the ferry driver can’t see you there and you have a good chance of being capsized or pushed up to the barnacles on the pilings by the prop wash.

While we’re on the subject, expect a visit from the Coast Guard if you’re within 500 yards of a ferry underway, or 100 yards when it’s at the dock. If you find yourself too close, slow down and turn away.

Leaving Kingston, the ferry runs straight for about 600 yards to clear the shoals off of the point of Apple Tree Cove, before it turns. So, when coming out of the marina when a ferry is at dock, go straight and wait a bit before turning north. The crew sets the course to clear the boats milling about. That’s why it helps to hold your course in these situations. If you do maneuver, make a big course change, like 45 degrees, so it’ll get noticed by the crew and the radar.

The course to Edmonds was picked to avoid ships in the Puget Sound Traffic Separation Scheme.  Inbound ships come down “lanes” on our side of the Sound, and the outbound ships go up “lanes” on the Edmonds side.  Other boats, including ferries, are supposed to stay out of these lanes and, when they cross, to cross at right angles. The ferries normally pass astern of the ships. If they have to cross ahead, it’s arranged on the radio.

Merchant ships are going faster than they look and you don’t have much time to get out of their way. We clocked one going 22 knots, or two miles in five minutes. When crossing their track it’s best to just aim astern. Another reason to stay well clear is their limited visibility, because the view ahead can be obscured by containers for up to a mile.

If you find yourself in a situation with these ships call them on the Coast Guard’s traffic control Channel 13. Five blasts on their whistle doesn’t mean hello, it means that you’re in danger. While ferries can do an emergency stop in something over one boat length the big ships take ten lengths or about a mile and half.

On the way back we turned into Kingston about a mile off the beach and maneuvered to the dock in a tricky tide. This is done at a cool steering station where they can operate both propellers and both rudders simultaneously. While there’s no rule against fishing in front of the ferry dock, it’s a good idea to have a schedule and start pulling nets and pots 30 minutes before arrival/departure.

Better yet, put your crab pots 500 yards away.

— FerryFare is written by Walt Elliott, chairman of the Kingston Ferry Advisory Committee. Contact him at