Transportation insanity: Sun, ferries, and crazy drivers

This is the high season for ferry rides and crazy drivers. When the two meet, it's entertaining, and annoying.
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The locals will know you're a tourist.

This is the high season for ferry rides and crazy drivers. When the two meet, it's entertaining, and annoying.

Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper was once on Bill O'Reilly's show and the blustering Fox TV host took exception to something Stamper said. "You're livin' in fairy land!" he boomed. He was close, as Stamper, an Orcas Island resident, does indeed live in ferry land.

As do many of us on the Salish Sea. I ride ferries pretty regularly, and have all my life. Summer is the silly season, ferry-wise. The sun makes Seattle drivers nuts.

On those rare days when the strange golden orb appears in the sky, we leap into our vehicles and head for the the shore. I hate driving the early days of summer because everyone is so active, the mobility tinged with desperation. This may be the only good weekend of the summer, so step on it!

Driving down to the ferry dock on the first sunny Saturday this June, I dodged a driver on Madison who persisted in texting from Pill Hill to Colman Dock, slowing for green lights, and Tweeting merrily. On the other end of the spectrum, I encountered a mad taxi driver taking his terrified charges on a downhill run to make the Bainbridge ferry on a Mister Toad-style wild ride. Lucky there are bathrooms on the ferry so they could change into clean underwear.

Together these two combine to make up the typical toxic mix of Seattle driving: half of the drivers are too aggressive, the rest are clueless. It's old Ballard meets the L.A. Freeway. Hint for Washington State Department of Transportaion: No amount of freeway building is going to fix that madness. Instead of new highways, as I've argued before, let's enroll people in remedial driver's ed.

Tourists on the ferry are fun to watch. Their wonder at what we take for granted, like Mount Rainier doing its floating cream-puff thing, is good to see, because it reminds us that we live in a pretty incredible place. But the ferry system has taken some of the fun out of watching the newbies. The ferries don't blast their horns when they leave the dock or arrive anymore (only rarely). For years, it was high entertainment to watch strangers leap out of their bloomers when the horn sounded.

Now ferry passengers are greeted with recordings by local "celebrities," from the soothing voice of KIRO-TV anchor Steve Raible to the familiar boom of the Mariners' Dave Niehaus. Why aren't right-wing websites all over the fact that Gov. Chris Gregoire slips a recorded message into the ferry patter (or maybe they are and I just don't read them)? Why is the governor taking time to tell us to enjoy the ride? Do we really need lessons on how to ride on a big boat?

The Gregoire voice cameo smacks of the way Greg Nickles used to insert his name or face into everything, kinda like North Korea's Kim Jong Il. Maybe it's because Republicans think that ferry riders will blame her for poor service. In that case, it seems more appropriate to have Tim Eyman explain why you need to pay attention to where the life vests are kept on the rust-bucket you're riding. The sinking ship of state could be more than a metaphor some day.

Since Seattle doesn't have many celebrities you want to hear from, some of the voice picks are odd. Like gardener Ciscoe Morris who has an accent from Mars. He's credible when telling us about things like edible chicken coops and such, but why is he telling us about ferry safety? Perhaps you can make a good mulch in your life raft.

And speaking of safety, the homeland security stuff with all the dogs sniffing cars in the ferry lines and escort vessels with guys manning machine guns: I just can't see it. The bigger threats are fog, nutty show-off captains, brake or steering failures, computer glitches, or some dope smoking on the car deck while leaning on a propane tank. It wasn't Al Qaeda that put a ferry on Elwha Rock.

Like everything else, riding the ferry used to be simpler. Now it feels like you're in an airport with safety messages and security. Every time I see those Washington State Patrol troopers with dogs, I think about how Seattle says it can't afford 20 new cops and the King County sheriff's office is cutting back. Couldn't these guys be doing something more productive than passing out dog biscuits all day in the name of national security?

Rookie ferry riders try some creative things. Line jumping, for one. The other day, I saw a driver attempt to sprint onto the ferry at random, as if the lines meant nothing. And it isn't just SUV types. I was recently cut off by a woman in a Volvo wagon with a "Free Tibet" sticker.

If you try and jump long wait lines for the ferry, it's justification for vigilante action. My favorite recent goofy sight, however, was finding a car parked nearly sideways on the main car deck. You don't often see a car on the ferry parked perpendicularly.

I asked a deck hand what happened, and he rolled his eyes and shrugged. But what it looked like was that someone tried to switch lanes at the last second and got trapped by the other cars filling in around them. I think the deck hand wasn't where he was supposed to be, but how hard is it to follow the guy in front of you? Apparently, for some people it's harder than the WASL.

In my memory, I've only seen a car parked sideways on the ferry one other time, and it was intentional. The ferry had stopped at Lopez Island, heading for Anacortes after a long holiday weekend. The ferry was full and had to leave most of the Lopez cars, but the deck hands walked up the long ferry line until they found a VW Bug and waved it on. The only way it would fit was if it was parked sideways, so a bunch of crewmen (and they were all men in those days) bounced the Bug until it was at the right angle. For the driver, it was a trampoline ride, but well worth the wear on his springs in order not to be left behind.

Yes, we live in ferry land, and summer is when it provides endless entertainment.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.