Laura Kohler, a Washington State Ferries (WSF) captain who is working as first mate on this day, pushes the button that sounds a loud bellowing horn as the ferry starts out of the dock at Friday Harbor heading for Sidney. “That’s so everyone knows to get out of the way,” she says. “You wouldn’t believe how many boats and kayaks don’t seem to understand that it would probably be a good idea to get out of the way of a 2000-ton ferry. We often have to divert around them.”
“It’s worse, of course, when it’s foggy and you cannot see the end of the jack staff outside the window. Not only is there the lack of visibility for us, but boats start to follow us, I guess to figure out where they are themselves. It can get dicey when they get too close,” she says.
It’s a beautiful sunny day in early fall. The surface of the water is clear and smooth and green. From the pilothouse of the ferry you can see miles in every direction. Traveling the ferries with Kohler’s perspective is an experience most island travelers never enjoy.
Guiding the boat is one of the captain’s responsibilities Boats cut in front of the ferry all the time. “I am always saying, ‘You know, if that guy’s boat dies, we’re really going to be in trouble.’
“This time, there was a pleasure boater going port-to-port with me. All of a sudden, for some reason, he decided to cut in front of me. I am watching the guy carefully. He cuts in front of me about 50 yards in front of us. I am thinking, ‘What the heck is he doing?’ All of a sudden he is jumping up and down and waving his arms. His boat did die. I told the quartermaster to stump it full astern.
“Fortunately ferries stop pretty fast, but we were barely able to squeak around the guy without hitting him. When you change course that quickly, the whole ferry shakes. It was hairy. I am not sure why these guys always want to be on the other side of the ferry.”
Kohler, whose family has had a summer home on Orcas since 1961, lives in Anacortes during the winter. Growing up she was a bit of a tomboy who liked fishing and playing in the woods and doing all the grubby things boys liked to do. She spent her summers on Orcas since the 1960s, and says, “I love Orcas. I don’t know if there is a better place on earth for a kid that likes the outdoors. I have had so much fun here. Fishing, looking for agates on the beach, playing in the woods, swimming, floating on inner-tubes and logs and crabbing. All in an idyllic setting.” She is still as easygoing and still a bit tomboyish but now she carries her command with dry humor.
She has worked for WSF since 1988 and received her Master’s License (certificate that she can work as a captain) in 1998. She says she was a bit aimless in her 20s and did not stay at any job long. “I worked at the Skyline Dock and in Alaska at some canneries and did some commercial fishing. I applied to work on the ferries because it was a local non-seasonal job. It seemed like it would be fun,” Kohler says of her decision to apply for a job with WSF.
“After a couple of years as Ordinary Seaman, I wanted to do something a little more interesting, so I studied and became an Able Bodied Seaman. Then I decided I didn’t want to be on the car deck all the time. I wanted more responsibility and a different set of duties, so I started working on my Mate’s License.
“It required a lot of studying and took a lot of time. I had to get my radar certification, attend advanced firefighting school, take a mate’s course and get my Merchant Mariner’s License (issued by the United States Coast Guard). In firefighting school, they basically set things on fire and you go put them out,” she said.
“Then I had to add pilotage to the license. That means on my own personal, unpaid time, I had to take 12 observation runs on each route in the fleet, plus three interconnecting trips, not just the ones I was going to be working. If you do the work and get your master’s license it’s worth it. If not, you’ve just had some really crappy vacations,” Kohler says of the observation runs.
Each candidate must pass a test on each route that requires drawing a chart with depths, contour depth lines, traffic lanes, navigational aids, land masses and dangers to navigation and writing a route description for each run. “After putting in the amount of sea time as a mate required, I took the Coast Guard exam to get my Master’s License that got me to the rank of Captain,” Kohler said.
In 1998, when she first got her license, only nine other women had a Master’s license out of the 74 WSF employees with licenses. “I didn’t think about there not being a lot of women as captains when I decided to get mine. I ran into a couple of male officers who could have made it easier than they did, but 99 percent of them were great. There will probably always be some men that don’t think you belong in a man’s world. A couple of them did not want a woman in their pilothouse. I would just get off their boat and go ride with another captain.
“What was harder for me was learning to be the boss. One day you are working deck hand, the next day you’re the boss and the following day you’re a deck hand again. It played havoc with some of my friendships while I was figuring that out,” Kohler says.
Kohler, who works both captain and first mate, says she has probably worked only 100 days as captain in the ten years she has had her Master’s license, mostly in the San Juan Islands. She usually bids to work Sidney in the summer and the San Juans in the winter.
Along with the technical expertise required of a Captain, she is required to have customer service skills to answer passenger problems and concerns. Some of the questions she’s fielded have been:
What time do the whales come out?
When does the fog lift?
Where do the islands go in the winter?
Do the ferries run on tracks?
Is this a lake?
Does the water freeze in the winter?
“Handling passengers is always interesting,” she said. “Once, we were making our approach to Anacortes when the crew told me a couple had lost their car keys. This happens a lot and we usually can break into the car for them, but not this time. The crew searched everywhere for the keys – bathrooms, cabin area and car deck. No luck. To save time, I told the couple they’d have to take another round trip with us and we’d just load around them. Being a wonderful and fun couple, they looked at it as one grand adventure – they were having fun!
“We called a locksmith who was to meet us upon our arrival in Anacortes. As we were approaching the dock, a deckhand told me that the couple had found their keys; the woman found them in her underwear.
“When I talked to the couple again, they were cracking up. The woman had had the keys in her sweater pocket and when she went to the restroom, unbeknownst to her, the keys slipped into her underwear. When she went to use the restroom prior to our second landing in Anacortes, she found them!
“The husband said he was going to write a song about it,” Kohler said.
Kohler is also responsible for training; each crew in the fleet goes through weekly training. “Sometimes when you are riding the ferry we are doing drills – fire drills, abandoned ship drills and rescue drills. I am responsible for rescue operations, so I have to make sure the crew does the drills in a timely fashion.
“Two years ago, we were coming out of Friday Harbor, and as we came around Brown Island, I saw this little boat going around in circles. At first I thought it was some kids fooling around, but it just looked strange.
“Then the quartermaster said he saw a head in the water. I told the crew, ‘We got a man overboard. This is not a drill. Let’s go!’ It went perfectly. We had the rescue boat in the water so fast. But by the time they got there the guy had gone down. The crew had to reach into the water up to their shoulders to pull him out. I could smell the booze on him before we even got the rescue boat back up. He was pretty near death when we brought him aboard. We peeled his clothes off and packed him in heat packs and returned to Friday Harbor with him. We joked, ‘Booze is probably lighter than water, which is why he didn’t sink sooner.’
“I am hoping to be working full-time as a captain in the next couple of years,” Kohler says.
“I love the job. I work with great people. I have challenging experiences. I love being on the water; every day out here is different and interesting,” she says, looking out across the sun-drenched water. “I just can’t imagine being inside at a desk job every day.”
Kohler has many spare time interests. A few years ago she started raising chickens, “because they make great pets.” She also has a dog, Zeke, she loves to play with and two cats. She gardens and goes to hockey games and rock concerts. She spends a lot of time with her motorcycle club, the Buscadors del Sol Women’s Motorcycle Club, and is looking forward to the Sept. 28 Oyster Run in Anacortes.
One of the greatest pleasures in being a ferry boat captain, says Kohler, is, “When I pass my dad and his friend out fishing in their little fishing spot; I blow the whistle at them to say, ‘Hi Dad!’”