Ferry chartering making a splash in Kitsap

Ferries have consistently been both a daily mode of transportation and something of a tourist attraction.

Personalized pop-up ferry routes have capitalized on both, emerging in Kitsap County as the latest craze on the local festival scale.

Bremerton’s 2023 Blackberry Festival and Poulsbo’s 2024 Frosty Fest each introduced and reaped the benefits of free ferry routes to and from their respective cities on the historic Carlisle II.

Now with the date set for a ferry-centered festival in Port Orchard — The Mosquito Fleet Fest May 25 —-and an increased interest in pop-up ferry service, Kitsap Transit is weighing the pros and cons of deciding what a boat can be chartered for.

“It is certainly a big community benefit,” KT executive director John Clauson said. “I think there’s a benefit to us in the sense that it is a greater exposure of the options available for transportation in the community.”

Organizers of the Catch the Carlisle II pop-up for the Blackberry Festival reported in October that over 2,000 people used it for travel to and from Bremerton to the festival or even as just a change in their daily transit practices. Images from the Frosty Fest likewise showcased a boat packed with smiling passengers who made the sailing to and from Poulsbo in February.

Organizations like the Greater Kitsap Chamber of Commerce are trying to secure pop-up routes for 2024 and beyond given the success of those runs. GKC president David Emmons called the service “an economic engine for cities such as Bremerton and Silverdale. It helps with a lot of issues, and plus, it’s just a great ride.”

County leaders like Commissioner Katie Walters are looking beyond pop-up service. “If we’re looking at interlocal ferries, this is a way for our community to see the potential and also have an opportunity to ride,” she said.

Clauson, while acknowledging the benefits, also said the agency’s top priority must remain to maintain public transit on land and water, no matter the appeal of specialized service. He said, “These boats are here to provide transportation that we committed to with the voters’ approval of this program.”

He’s not opposed to the service but wants to establish common sense conditions about chartering a boat, including staffing.

“We don’t have an overabundance of staff,” said Clauson, adding that pop-up service can create a need for current staff to work overtime. “It is a little bit of a challenge in that this is not our primary business.”

Maintenance issues also have to be considered. “Most of these events occur on a Saturday, where we have spare boats, if you will. But what I’ve communicated is that, even on the morning of the event, if we have a breakdown, and we need that vessel to provide the service it was intended to do, it’s going to be used,” Clauson said.

Also up for interpretation is what boats should be available to charter and at what cost. Monies paid to charter vessels have been described by Clauson as “at cost to the best of our ability,” but therein lies potential for a profit.

Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erickson saw no issue with chartering what she called the “putt-putt” boats or smaller, slower vessels for community events. But she was nervous about chartering any of the fast ferries. “They’re a lot more complicated to operate, and they’re also really valuable boats,” she said. “Not that the other ones aren’t valuable.”