Noelle Onstad (foreground) and Jennifer Madsen work out on a ferry as they commute home on the Mukilteo-Clinton run. Onstad, who lives in Greenbank, and Madsen, from Langley, have been working out together for the past year. Onstad’s motivation and reason for exercising on the ferry: “I’m the mother of two boys and this is the only time I have in my day to exercise.” (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Noelle Onstad (foreground) and Jennifer Madsen work out on a ferry as they commute home on the Mukilteo-Clinton run. Onstad, who lives in Greenbank, and Madsen, from Langley, have been working out together for the past year. Onstad’s motivation and reason for exercising on the ferry: “I’m the mother of two boys and this is the only time I have in my day to exercise.” (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

The joys of commuting aboard a Washington state ferry

Instead of traffic jams, you get stunning scenery, chummy conversation and wine after work.

By Margi Hartnett / Herald Writer

Whidbey Islanders say they’re “going to America” whenever leaving the island for the mainland. For a lot of us, the ferry isn’t just a way of getting to and from work — it’s a way of life. Fellow islander Carol Taber dubbed us the “commutants.”

Mainlanders often wonder what possesses Whidbey Island residents to commute via ferry. After all, ferries can run behind, and the 2.5-mile sailing adds 15-20 minutes to the commute. There’s a fare to pay and sometimes a three-hour wait during peak travel times.

All true — but the traditional commute involves collisions, flat tires, engine troubles, construction slowdowns, traffic jams, aggressive drivers and toll roads.

Tom French, of Freeland, looks at his cellphone while enjoying a Diamond Knot IPA during his commute home via the ferry. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Tom French, of Freeland, looks at his cellphone while enjoying a Diamond Knot IPA during his commute home via the ferry. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

When I walk on the ferry, I’m minimizing the wear and tear on my car, spending less on gas and letting someone else do the driving. Not to mention, I’d rather be looking at the spectacular scenery in the shadows of the Cascade and Olympic mountains than the serpentine lines of red taillights in stop-and-go traffic.

Of course, the largest bonus is living on a breathtakingly beautiful island.

“It is always different every day; the water, the lighting and the people you see,” said Ann Goetz, who has commuted via ferry for six years.

Plus, when you’re not snarled in traffic or focused on driving, you have time to do other things.

Commuters make their way to a ferry on the Mukilteo-Clinton run. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Commuters make their way to a ferry on the Mukilteo-Clinton run. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Some of us sit down to work on puzzles left on booth tables. Women touch up their makeup and hair; men shave. Others visit the galley for coffee and/or breakfast or squeeze in some reading with a newspaper or book.

On the voyage home, some like to relax with a glass of beer or wine. Or you’ll see groups gather with potluck dishes for a quick celebration. Sometimes a musician takes out his guitar and plays.

The health-minded take the 15 minutes to walk laps or meditate. Noelle Onstad’s ferry routine involves a daily workout. She brings an exercise mat, hand weights and her smartphone with a fitness app.

Her motivation for exercising on the ferry: “I’m the mother of two boys, and this is the only time I have in my day to exercise.”

Others like to spend their time catching up on work. Teacher Carol Ann Leonessa corrects her students’ papers during the commute.

Dave Christian plays his travel guitar aboard a ferry headed to Mukilteo on a recent morning. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Dave Christian plays his travel guitar aboard a ferry headed to Mukilteo on a recent morning. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Walk-on ferry commuters have a distinct look. When it’s cold, we don our North Face hooded jackets (umbrellas are not for true Washingtonians), Timbuk2 backpacks and waterproof, nonslip footwear. On warmer days, we put on hats to keep the sun out of our eyes and pair shorts or capris with our Keen sport sandals. Every temperature in between requires layering all of the above.

We have backpacks to carry our lunch, smartphone, tablet, wallet, flashlight, newspaper, book, extra clothing or shoes, and anything else we might need while away from home. Some of us with more to haul back and forth opt for wheeled suitcases.

It’s a culture like no other I’ve experienced. I’m part of the 6:30 a.m. community and the 5 p.m. community — both distinctly different. People come and go with job changes, retirement, relocation. And there’s always a rookie to train in the commuter’s ways.

While waiting for the ferry at the Clinton dock, I give a morning report to my “ferry family.” We like to share our wildlife sightings and learn about our natural environment. It’s the cheapest marine life and scenic tour around.

Jenny Young knows what I mean by my ferry family. As a ferry commuter for 36 years, she’s watched the children of her fellow commuters grow up.

“The commuters are like one big family,” Young said.

Morning commuters relax in booths aboard a ferry making its way from Clinton to Mukilteo. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Morning commuters relax in booths aboard a ferry making its way from Clinton to Mukilteo. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

You’ll find me on the car deck for the cruise home, rain or shine. The only time you won’t see me outdoors is when waves break over the bow during a storm. I saw a group take a soaking doing so.

Storms are an amazing force to behold when on a ferry. Watching a storm roll in over mercurial waters is as thrilling as seeing waves smashing into the sides of the vessel. You know it’s going to be an exhilarating crossing when passengers are asked to stay seated, stand by their motorcycles or turn off motion-activated car alarms.

I especially enjoy the feel of misty sea air on my face. I call it my marine facial. I’m also a faithful follower of the “ferry hair; don’t care” motto.

As a marine naturalist — a certification that was inspired by my ferry commute — I’m always wide-eyed and scanning the water’s surface for anything that pops out of Possession Sound. How many can say they see whales, porpoises, sea lions or seabirds on their way to work?

We get to see picture-perfect scenes of Mount Baker, Hat Island, sailboats, sunrises, sunsets and the occasional whale fluke. It’s incredible.

And, of course, it’s fun for commuters to see tourists standing at the railing of the upper decks with their arms spread in iconic “Titanic” fashion. Even after 20 years (the movie came out in 1997), they still like to yell Leonardo DiCaprio’s (Jack’s) famous line: “I’m king/queen of the world!”

Jill Hummelstein stretches during her morning ferry commute. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Jill Hummelstein stretches during her morning ferry commute. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

I love the whole experience. If nothing else, the ride is a great way to psych yourself up for a day’s work or unwind afterward.

Not everyone boats to work, with a skilled and attentive crew, breakfast ready in the galley or a glass of wine waiting for them after work. I can honestly say my ship comes in every day — twice a day.

Margi Hartnett:​ ​425-339-3068; mhartnett@heraldnet.com.

Ferry fares

Passenger fares are generally round trip with the exception of the Port Townsend-Coupeville route and international sailings to Sidney, B.C. Seniors (65 and older), persons with disabilities and passengers with a Medicare card or other eligibility verification travel at half the regular passenger fare rate. There are special rates for youth 6-18 years of age. Children 5 and younger travel free. The is a $1 surcharge for bicyclists.

The fare for walk-on service between Mukilteo and Clinton is $5.05 (ages 19-64), $2.50 (ages 6-18 and 65 and older). A multi-ride commuter card is $40.90 for 10 trips and a monthly pass for 31 rides is $65.45.

For more information, go to www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/fares.

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