The Road to 65, Mile 264: Ferry Life

August 19, 2015, Prescott- No, I am not embarking on another far-flung adventure.  Today, I am ruminating about the process of getting from one place to another, by boat.  Ferries have been around since before Egypt or Sumer were kingdoms.  Probably, as soon as a Neanderthal or Peking Man was able to fashion a log large enough to hold one or two other people, he or she would have had the bright idea to charge them a fee, in the currency of the day, in order to get across the river or lake.

My own experience with ferries goes back to 1966, when my parents took us to Martha’s Vineyard for a day.  I remember the salt air and the rather smooth ride from Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven, across Vineyard Sound.  We visited some Wampanoag people, in Gay Head, on the western end of the island, and being 15, I wandered off for a bit, by myself, to try and meet up with some local kids and hang out to see how life was there, day to day.

Since then, life has taken me across many bodies of water, either by watercraft or by plane.  I’ve tried my hand at rowing, and paddling canoes, with varying degrees of success.  There was one time, when I worked for Villa-Oasis School, now defunct, when one of the students and I slept on opposite ends of the Headmaster’s boat, while at Cholla Bay, in Sonora.  When we woke up, the next morning, the boat had drifted about a half-mile out to sea.  We rowed it back in, but I was never invited to go back to the hacienda.

Large ferry operations, like those in Alaska, Washington State and British Columbia, are staffed by young and old alike, working twelve-hour shifts.  Alaska’s ferry crews are state employees, and no tipping is allowed.  My tendency is to tip, fairly generously, for good service, so this was a new experience.  Then again, the prices of their fare make not needing to tip, a blessing.

Having spent 6 1/2 days aboard a U.S. Navy vessel, last Fall, I wondered how the crew members on various ferries regard their lives.  I listened to people talk back and forth, during the four Alaska Ferry rides, and the trip to and from Victoria, aboard a Washington ferry.  The dining staff and purser’s office folks seem to work the hardest, never seeming to catch a break, with several hundred, and sometimes over a thousand, people to keep fed, and secure.  As with any vessel, the engineering people, in the hottest part of the ship, have the most thankless working conditions; even if they are sitting, they are doing so in a heat capsule.

The sleeping quarters for the Alaska crew, are below decks, under the engine room and car deck, which, for safety reasons, is off-limits to passengers, for most of the journey.  Four scheduled and supervised car deck calls, per day, are allowed the passengers, mostly to check on caged pets which are secured in vehicles, with the windows rolled down for ventilation.  The crew members did tell me it was sometimes hard to sleep, with the dogs barking, off and on.  It’s definitely a life that one would have to choose out of love for people and for the sea.

Many of my fellow passengers chose state rooms as accommodation.  Being me, I rolled out a pad and a sleeping bag, though on top of a cot, so as to not have to get soaked, lest a wave came up over the bow or, as happened a few times, rain water leaked through the canopy.  I have mentioned, in one of the Alaska posts, how a woman sleeping to my left did get an unwelcome bath, from just such rain water.

One of these days, I will be on a ferry again.  I might do the state room experience, or just remain myself, and exult in the canopy of stars.  Either way, the sea and I will remain friends, as will the crew.

5 thoughts on “The Road to 65, Mile 264: Ferry Life

  1. Ferries are wonderful — until they aren’t. There have been many accidents in recent years, with large loss of life (not in Seattle or Alaska, but in the far east and the Mediterranean). It’s hard work to run them, and they never seem to stop except in big storms. Even on big cruise ships, the crew doesn’t last long — they sign contracts for long periods on board, and with little time off! The sea is a wonderful living place, but I wouldn’t want to work there, either on transportation ships or on fishing boats.

    • Too many ferries abroad are unregulated. The Philippines, Bangladesh and Brazil seem to make the most headlines, in terms of overcrowding-based disasters. I don’t know if I’d want to use a big cruise ship. They appeal to a far different clientele- more like a floating Las Vegas Strip.

      • Big cruise ships are truly like large, fancy hotels, floating on their sides. I far prefer the smaller ships (100 people or less) — they’re just as comfortable, and instead of concentrating on the amenities they concentrate on the scenery, the wildlife, etc.

  2. I’ve never been on the kind of ferry you’re describing – went on the small ferry to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, but that’s only a short jaunt. No dining staff, etc.

    Must be quite an experience.

    • I’ve been on those sorts, as well- besides Martha’s Vineyard, I’ve taken small ferries to Block Island, Staten Island, and the like. Then, there is the necessary five-minute ferry, from Ketchikan Airport to the town itself. 🙂

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