Washington State has one of the largest ferry boat systems in the world. Thousands of commuters use it daily, frequently enough that a system of etiquette has evolved. There's nothing mystical about travelling by ferry, but a little foreknowledge goes a long way towards smoothing your passage.
Planning ahead - It helps
First, check the schedule for your boat so you know the travel times [Seattle-Bainbridge | Edmonds-Kingston | Whidbey-Port Townsend] with weekday and weekend schedules for many routes. If you're looking at Bremerton or Vashon, just drive around; it'll be much faster. Watch out for holidays which may have special schedules. Important: Reserve ahead when travelling from Whidbey Island to Port Townsend.
Waiting - It happens
In high season, ferry traffic will exceed capacity, particularly on Friday afternoons and Sunday evenings. Cars may line up on the shoulder of the road to wait. If you see a queue, get in it. There is only one line for all ferries. At peak hours you may find yourself waiting for a boat or two. Relax. If you're going to be late to the inn, don't worry. Over the years we've spent hours waiting for ferries; we understand. (I'm actually writing this while waiting for a ferry.) If you're waiting, consider the following:
- Call us at 360-385-6753 to let us know you may be late - We really appreciate this
- For the sake of the environment, your wallet, and those around you, turn off your engine
- Get out of the car and stretch your legs. Wandering off - at least for the driver - is bad form. The line will sporadically roll forward. Veterans will drive around an empty car.
- Now would be a fine time to read a bit
Ideally though you'll drive right up to the terminal, pay your fare (prices), perhaps with a ferry already in the slip ready for boarding. The ticket seller will tell you which lane to use. A state trooper may come by with a bomb dog. For more information, including what to leave behind, see The WA Ferries Website.
Embarkation - It's easy
Driving onto a floating tunnel in bumper-to-bumper traffic with uniformed strangers waving at you can be off-putting. Again, relax. If it's after dark, turn off your headlights (parking lights are ok) and follow the car in front of you closely at a moderate pace as you roll onto the boat. Don't panic. People do this every day and almost never collide or fall off. Cars and trucks board two abreast. A uniformed crewmember (generally the first mate) will point you in the right direction. Strategically positioned deck hands will guide you along. When the car in front of you stops, pull close to its bumper. Wait a moment until you are sure the car in front of you won't pull forward. The coziness ensures that as many cars as possible get on the ferry. You don't want to be the car left behind because someone needed a five-foot comfort zone. Besides, a deckhand will likely make you pull up anyhow.
Parking and the Crossing
After you've snuggled in, turn off your lights, turn off the engine, set the parking brake, and turn off your car alarm. Your motion detector will indeed detect the motion of the boat. Then you should go up to the deck to enjoy the view, day or night, rain or shine.
Remember where you parked by noting which way the boat is going (bow) and which side (left = port, right = starboard) you're on. Most ferries have an upper passenger deck, but the best view is from outside on the main deck; fore or aft are equally good. There is also a galley. It may even be open. For whatever reason, popcorn is as popular on ferries as at movie theaters. Unlike at most theaters you can also get wine, beer and a decent (if over-priced) sandwich.
Don't stress about when to return to your car. Unless you got a front-row seat on the boat or need extra time for the elevator or other considerations, an announcement gives plenty of advanced warning. Return to your car, put the key in the ignition, but don't start it. The boat will pull into the slip with a bit of a thud. The crew will then prepare the ramp, the bicyclists will roll out, then the motorcycles, and then there will be some fidgeting about before the first car rolls off. Unless you are the first car, wait until you see the brake lights of the cars in front of you. Be ready to release your brake and start your engine, but sitting there with your engine running is bad form. If you are indeed the first car in line, don't panic. A deckhand will appear and very clearly tell you when to start your engine and when to drive off. They appreciate not breathing your exhaust, and if they haven't made eye contact then it's not time yet. Like driving on, exiting the ferry feels strange but if you follow the car in front of you you'll be fine. Cars exit two at a time.
Resume your journey to the Old Consulate Inn.