Ferry Stories

Tales of Vashon

John and I were sitting in the front room of my quaint log cabin, on a cliff above outer Quartermaster, recalling ferry stories: when I remembered the “burnt out clutch.”

We were pulling away from the Fauntleroy dock too fast.  The last dolphin was just racing by the open ports on the main deck.  Not much later, smoke began to pour out the engine room door.  We kids were scared that the ferry was going to sink and Dad was upstairs playing poker.  Smoke continued to billow out on the main deck when one of the engine room guys appeared as a “ghost in the smoke,” yelling for us to get back in the car: “There is nothing to worry about,” he said.  We felt some strange shaking coming from down below as the old Quinault slowed.  Gradually the smoke lessened as we neared the Vashon dock and the Captain told us all to get off at Vashon as the Quinault was going to go no further.  I learned later at school that the Quinault had “blown a clutch.”

John recalls the engine room of a ferry as a fascinating place for kids. Lots of dials … sight glasses telling unknown mysterious important variables.. Open bearings, rods and pistons. Also arrayed were bronze drip cans for oil with glass sight containers that were continuously monitored. The noise and the steady mechanical action was a mesmerizing view for youngsters… The engine room was narrow and hot with ladders and steel walkways everywhere… as we would approach the dock the telegraph bell would ring and the revolutions change.. Then silence except for a hull vibration.. Engines stopped.. One man would jump up on a steel fairway above the main engine body and then pull a red lever.. At the sound of another bell.. And the noise would increase and one could hear water rushing past the hull.. Later we figured out this is how they reversed the prop and (mostly) avoided hitting the dock.

John was once lost in the engine room. An engineer had taken him down to see the engine.. He was fascinated by all the smells of hot oil and moving parts…and neglected to come up on time as the ferry docked.  The Captain delayed the ferry while grandpa came down and rousted him out.. John got a tongue lashing for that..  Grandpa was on the Winslow Port Commission and John had embarrassed him.

We both laughed at remembering, “Running for the ferry”…Sounds funny, unless your grades depend on your getting to school on time.  Dad was often late for the ferry and would start blowing his horn halfway down the steep parking lot hill, signaling the Captain to hold the ferry.  He hit the dock going 30 mph and the purser raised the gate to let us drive on.
I was just learning to drive, when I borrowed Grandma Corbaley’s 1941 Chevy to take the shortcut to the dock, down parking lot hill.  It’s a very steep hill and I rode the brakes on the way down until they started to fade and smoke as I put more pressure to the brake pedal.  My only hope was that there would be enough brake so as to stop me from shooting off the end of the dock to land in Puget Sound, as that happened occasionally.

We always got good and excited when we would wait at the dock and see the shinning gleam of the ‘Kalakala’… we kids called it the ‘ Cacala’ because we thought that it was an old Indian name for bird poop.

Usually the art-deco aluminum ferry was on the Bremerton run but ferries being what they were and still are.. Broke down and others were sent to take over the runs.  Mostly the Kalakala was sent to the Winslow run and occasionally to Vashon.

Adults despised the Kalakala because the vibrations of the thin aluminum skin were awful and it had clumsy doors at both ends that often failed at the dock..

However, kids loved it because of the noise and the snazzy restaurant/lounge. We would run around pounding on the thin skin, as if the walls of the ferry were drums… until adults threatened to toss us overboard or tell our parents.

This is why kids remember the old Kalakaka with nostalgia but our parents never had anything but a practical sense of wasted money and disdain for the old hulk when it was salvaged off the mudflats of Alaska and brought back to the sound..

Sean@vashonloop.com