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Originally published Thursday, March 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Q&A with a Washington State Ferries captain

A "How It's Done" Q&A with a Washington State Ferries captain.

Special to The Seattle Times

The vessel's roster

Capt. Ty Anderson depends on his crew to help get the ferry safely back and forth on its daily route. Here's a quick description of crew ranks and jobs:

Captain (master): In charge of the ferryboat, its operations and crew.

Chief mate: Assists the captain; shares many of the same duties but also oversees loading and unloading of vehicles.

Quartermaster: Does much of the steering once the boat is underway; follows orders from bridge officer.

Chief engineer: In charge of mechanical and electrical equipment; works closely with assistant engineer and oiler.

Ordinary seaman and able-bodied seaman: Deckhands with numerous duties from cleaning to tying off boat at dock.

When docking, keep an eye on the Clorox bottle

The modern ferryboat M.V. Tacoma has a lot of high-tech gadgets including an astonishing radar screen which, to the uneducated eye, looks like a brightly colored HD gaming device. Of course, we appreciate the technology, but it's the sensible low-tech solutions that demonstrate old-salt ingenuity. As the ferryboat gently nudged into the Winslow dock, Capt. Ty Anderson pointed below to the landing ramp under which the boat's bow would slip. Once the ferry was moored, that ramp would be lowered so cars could get off and on.

"See that Clorox bottle?" Anderson said, and sure enough, under the ramp a white plastic bottle dangled from a rope, hovering over the water. If the bottle is visible, all is well. But if it's in the water, the ramp is too low for the boat's car deck and needs an altitude adjustment.

Clever. Cheap. Charming.

— Connie McDougall

If You Go

Enjoy a cheap boat ride

Where: In Western Washington, it's not difficult to find a ferryboat to ride on. Washington State Ferries' 22 vessels visit 20 ports of call in Puget Sound and British Columbia. (The Anacortes-Sidney, B.C., route, currently suspended for winter, resumes March 29.)

Big or small: If size matters, the biggest are the Jumbo Mark II-class vessels such as the Tacoma, which crosses Puget Sound between Seattle and Bainbridge Island and can carry 2,500 passengers as well as 212 vehicles. The smallest is the 200-passenger, 34-vehicle Hiyu, which, until recently, temporarily replaced the Rhododendron on the run between Point Defiance in Tacoma and Tahlequah at the south end of Vashon Island.

Tickets to ride: The system's cheapest ticket: a one-way passenger fare between Port Townsend and Keystone on Whidbey Island ($2.60). Or, better yet, if you're in the San Juan Islands, walk-on passengers may ride between islands for free. Otherwise, round-trip passenger fares range from $3.95 (Mukilteo-Clinton) to $6.70 for cross-Sound routes (Bainbridge Island, Bremerton, Kingston crossings), and higher for the San Juans. Add significantly more to bring a vehicle. Fares increase for peak season, May through mid-October.

Special events: Schedule special events (weddings, memorial services) by calling well in advance (206-464-6400). Even scheduled services are always at the discretion of the ship's master (captain).

More information: Check out the Washington State Ferries Web site for facts about the system's history, how boats are named and what those names mean (e.g.: Hyak: Chinook for "fast"). See www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries. Find more local ferry lore at HistoryLink (www.historylink.org).

For fares and schedules: 206-464-6400, 888-808-7977 or www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries.

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Puget Sound is home to the cheapest regularly scheduled scenic-cruise fleet around: Washington State Ferries. Go as a walk-on passenger on a sunny day whenever you need a reminder of why you live in the Pacific Northwest.

Here's a Q&A with a ferry captain on "How It's Done."

Everyone loves our ferryboats. Commuters catch a few extra winks on the way to work while Wi-Fied, earbudded Borg types complete more tasks. Tourists fill the decks — a thrill for the landlocked. Imagine an Oklahoman crossing Elliott Bay when The Mountain is out.

Every year, hardworking ferries haul millions of people around Puget Sound and into Canada — 23 million in 2008. One way or another, they've been doing that since the early 1900s when the privately owned "Mosquito Fleet" crossed the waters. That evolved into a state-run system we now know as Washington State Ferries, which operates the largest passenger ferry system in the nation and largest vehicle carrier in the world.

For the last 26 years of this history, Capt. Ty Anderson has worked on the boats, moving through the ranks from "ordinary seaman" to master. He comes from four generations of merchant mariners and is exactly who you want in charge: square-jawed, with a sailor's squint caused by countless hours scanning horizons. His are the eyes of one accustomed to binoculars, radar and the blank face of fog.

Anderson, 60, also has that good-humored confidence often found in people with really serious jobs. He explained a bit about the work during a crossing on the ferry Tacoma between Seattle and Bainbridge Island:

Q: We just pulled away from the dock. What were you and your crew doing?

A: After the cars are loaded, we make sure we're ready to close the gate and get under way, so I'm talking to the officer on the car deck who verifies the gate is closed. We make sure the loading plank is clear, that there aren't any bikes or cars blasting through trying to catch the ferry. Once clear, I ease us out from the dock, then transfer steering and propulsion to the chief mate and quartermaster. We have two officers in the active wheelhouse at all times.

Q: So there are two wheelhouses — one at each end, with the active being the forward wheelhouse. It looks seamless, but I assume things don't always go well?

A: Mechanically, we may lose propulsion or steering, different events, but that's why we have so many backup systems. We also have weekly drills, training for fire, first aid, rescues.

Q: Do you do a lot of rescuing?

A: We do. We can't leave a vessel in distress. Sorry if you're going to miss your flight, but I'm stopping.

Q: Do you recall any particular rescues?

A: There was one at 2 a.m. when we got a call that a man had fallen out of his rowboat. I took the radar down to almost nothing — got rid of the interference — and we put crews out with spotlights. When I had a radar target, they'd shine lights on it. The third target waved back at us.

Q: What about hazards like deadheads — logs in the water?

A: Going 17 knots with a 13-foot propeller turning 160 revolutions a minute — logs can do some damage. But again, the officer on watch is looking for things like that. We'll go around logs if we have to.

Q: And fog?

A: We get extra people on duty, put lookouts on the bow. I monitor radar constantly and we slow down, sometimes come to a stop.

Q: Plus, this is such a busy port with freighters, sailboats, yachts. How do you weave through all that?

A: We're talking on the radio and radar lets me know what's out there. It even picks up birds. This boat is 5,000 tons and 400 feet long so it's all about time, speed and distance. Predictable traffic isn't usually too difficult.

Q: What about the yahoos?

A: There's a 100-yard moving security zone around the ferry but I'll get jet-skiers trying to jump the wake.

Q: Do boats ever challenge you?

A: Oh, yeah, and sometimes we can't divert if there are shallows on either side. I'll give five blasts of the horn, which basically means "I'm in doubt about your intentions." At 160 decibels, that usually does the trick. Sometimes we have to stop.

Q: What do you use for brakes?

A: The bow propeller.

Q: On a happier note, do you allow weddings on board?

A: All the time. And memorial services. We slow to a stop so they can scatter the ashes, and we give three long blasts as a salute. An officer notes the latitude, longitude and time and takes that to the relatives. We try to be accommodating but we can't do it if there's a lot of wind or we're on the 5:30 p.m. run out of Seattle.

Q: Are you always watching the clock?

A: Yes. A minute here, a minute there, a stalled car — it's cumulative. Pretty soon, you're behind schedule. But it's not just loading and unloading. Traffic can slow us down, like tugs with log tows.

Q: I have to ask about those Coast Guard inflatables with big guns in the back that follow you out.

A: Those are random. We never know when they're going to show up, but it's all about safety. That's my job: to provide safe transportation, and we have an excellent safety record.

Q: Does it ever get boring?

A: (Laughing) For me, a beautiful, boring day is a good day.

Connie McDougall is a freelance writer based in Seattle. Contact conniemcdougall@yahoo.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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