Cars drive onto the ferry at the Washington State Ferries terminal on Monday in Mukilteo. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Cars drive onto the ferry at the Washington State Ferries terminal on Monday in Mukilteo. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

3 miles by ferry, but these days a round trip can take 5 hours

Reporter Andrea Brown commuted on the “20-minute” sailing between Mukilteo and Clinton. Service is taking a toll.

MUKILTEO, 12:10 p.m. on a Wednesday — It’s just another day in ferry-geddon.

With reduced ferry service due to crew shortages, travel time is a crapshoot.

The Mukilteo-Clinton boat, which now runs every hour instead of every half-hour, is 28 minutes behind schedule.

Odd, considering it only takes 20 minutes for the state’s green-and-white boats to sail across the 3 miles of water between the mainland and Whidbey Island.

What’s up with that?

At the toll booth, four of the seven lanes of the holding area are full.

The toll worker says, “Maybe,” when asked if there is room on the 1 p.m. boat, which won’t depart until 1:28 p.m-ish.

Before the recent cuts, a full boat meant waiting 30 minutes for the next. No biggie. Now it’s an hour, or hours.

I ponder coming back later.

“It’s not going to be any better later,” the toll man says.

“You can always drive around,” he adds.

Mukilteo to Freeland via Deception Pass is 110 miles and takes 2½ hours on a good day of travel on northbound I-5. Mukilteo to Freeland via ferry is a 15-minute drive when you get to Clinton, including a stop at the Dairy Queen.

Once you drive past the toll gate, there’s no turning back. I pay the $10 to join the hundreds of other inmates in metal boxes in the holding cell.

Savvy ferry riders know to charge their phones. I have 14% left on mine and it only charges when the car is turned on, which is not allowed during incarceration.

I send a message to work. My editor says to write a story about ferry-geddon. So much for trying to get out of work.

Cars line up waiting to board the ferry from Mukilteo to Clinton in July, a scene that has played out regularly due to pandemic related reduced sailings statewide. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

Cars line up waiting to board the ferry from Mukilteo to Clinton in July, a scene that has played out regularly due to pandemic related reduced sailings statewide. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

I walk between the rows of cars on the cell block, trying not to appear nosy.

A lady in a red Prius is texting. Ditto for the dude in a white Honda.

Almost everyone is fixated on phones or tablets. Zooming, Facebooking, YouTubing. Car after car.

A few exceptions: A woman reads a book perched on the steering wheel. A man leans back, eyes closed. A guy in a blue sock hat lifts his tailgate to organize his provisions.

A passenger jet flies overhead.

Otherwise, it is quiet.

Until a school bus of kids pulls in. A gaggle of girls in the back smile and boisterously wave to everyone.

Luckily, school buses go ahead of cars in the ferry loading hierarchy. Or not so luckily. A bus takes the space of three or four cars. There are now two buses in line.

The “maybe” from the toll man now seems “iffy.”

Finally, the boat arrives. It’s the 144-car Suquamish, the newest boat in the state’s aging ferry system.

Boarding soon begins. Vehicles in other lanes move forward. My uptight husband, Max, counts the cars, trucks and trailers advancing to the ramp.

“There go the two school buses,” Max says.

We inch forward.

“This is torture,” he says.

The ferry sails away.

We were seven cars from getting on. This means a wait of another hour or so.

“Damn school buses,” Max says.

1:34 p.m. and another hour to endure

The new Mukilteo terminal, inspired by a Coast Salish longhouse, is nicely appointed with cedar walls, tribal art, vending machines and killer views of the Sound.

It’s a godsend for walk-on passengers and those trapped in cars.

There are outlets at a standup counter, like airports have, to juice up your phone.

The guy in the blue sock hat, whom I spied organizing his provisions in the ferry line, is at the counter, but not to charge a device. He leans over a spiral notebook. Ballpoint pen in hand, his cursive spills through the spaces on the lined pages, with pauses to contemplatively gaze at the water.

His name is Daniel Goldsmith.

“I was Mr. South Whidbey 2017,” he says. The annual crowning title is a big deal on the island.

He is 75 and sells real estate. He lives in Freeland and it was a smooth sailing when he came over to the mainland for a morning medical appointment. Not so on the return voyage.

“I got a word from one of the deckhands. He said, ‘Don’t blame the deckhands,’” he says.

He doesn’t blame anyone for his two-hour wait.

“It’s a few hours without distractions,” he says.

He is jotting down his soldier’s memories from the ’70s for a book he is writing.

He spent decades taking ferries. He traveled the globe and spent nights stuck at train stations and airports.

Waiting is part of the journey.

“I accept it,” he says.

Outside, Bryan and Cheryl Cornish stroll the pedestrian path that was part of the $187 million terminal project.

The couple visiting from Dallas are taking a ferry to see family members on Whidbey. She wears a Texas flag mask.

“It’s not every day I get to look at the ocean,” she says. “We are looking at the wildlife and checking out the plants.”

The green stuff along the promenade goes unnoticed other than by dogs in the cars, needing to take a break. Cheryl Cornish uses a phone app that identifies each plant and is fascinated by the varieties, such as strawberries. Who knew?

The wait was an opportunity, not a nuisance, for these Texans.

“It’s all in the way you look at it,” she says.

Max is the only grouchy person in the ferry lot.

2:30 p.m.

We’re on the boat, baby. ETA in Clinton is 3 p.m.

It took nearly three hours to cross a 3-mile stretch of water.

The reward is a Peanut Buster Parfait at the Clinton Dairy Queen. All is well with the world.

Until it’s time to return.

6 p.m.

With boats running hourly, a delay screws up the flow for hours.

Turns out the 28-minute delay this day was due to a capsized rowboat near the Clinton dock that entailed a rescue boat.

As the light fades, the ferry line snakes along Highway 525, past the DQ that sparked joy not all that long ago.

In the holding area, Max worriedly counts the dozen FedEx and UPS trucks taking up space.

Sure enough, there’s another school bus.

The tweens’ squeals and laughter echo, sending a happy melody through the calm that prevails in the darkness.

Not even Max can complain.

8 p.m.

Back in Mukilteo.

Total travel time to crisscross 3 miles of water: five hours.

That’s longer than usual but not unusual these days. The pandemic-related cuts in sailings are across the board, on all routes. Boats are added when possible, like a happy accident.

“The schedule you can count on is the reduced service schedule,” says Ian Sterling, Washington State Ferries spokesperson. “It’s almost like it’s a busy summer weekend all the time.”

As they say in Texas: It’s all in the way you look at it.

Take some advice from Mr. South Whidbey 2017: Accept it.

And don’t blame the deckhands.

Andrea Brown: abrown@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.

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