For the past year during the spring, summer and fall sailing schedules, the inter-island ferry has been buzzing with the sound of vibrating strings during the Floating Ukulele Jam. The next jam is slated for Thurs., Sept. 19, leaving Friday Harbor at 5:20 p.m., Orcas at 6:20 p.m. and Shaw at 6:35 p.m.
Every third Thursday of the month, groups of islanders gather at their respective ferry terminals, eager to play and sing. Last month under the light of the setting sun, 15 Orcas locals of varying skill levels awaited the arrival of their late 6:20 p.m. ferry by playing ukuleles, guitars and banjoleles (ukulele neck on a banjo body) in line. Ukuleles are encouraged but not required. At one end of the ferry, chairs are orchestrated into a circle by those first to arrive.
“The ferry workers tell us, ‘This is a public highway. You can sing and play music on here any time you want, as long as it’s not amplified,’” organizer Gordon Koenig said.
Departing from Friday Harbor first, the ferry sails to Orcas, Shaw and Lopez then circles back to Shaw, Orcas and finally Friday Harbor. Where one embarks and disembarks determines the amount of time one has to jam.
“We go around in a circle and ask the group if there’s a song anyone wants to do. Some people bring sheet music to hand out. No level of music knowledge is required,” organizer Anita Orne said.
In the past, jammers have performed “With A Little Help From My Friends” by The Beatles and “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison. Since its inception in June of 2018, the Floating Ukulele Jam has also been host to an artist collaboration with newspaper publication The Changing Times.
For several months, Orne’s husband Koenig had wanted to start a ukulele jam on Orcas. Concurrently, Orne worked as a music teacher on Shaw Island. Weekly she walked on and off the inter-island ferry strapped with several instruments.
“One day on the ferry, I was coming back to Orcas after doing my lessons. One of the ferry guys came up to me and asked if I was the right person to talk to about the uke jam,” Orne said. He had found out about it through the grapevine. “He said he was interested in joining. I said ‘Too bad we can’t just do it on the ferry,’ and we both realized we could. I proposed the idea to Gordon and he liked it. I think one of the most memorable moments was when four ferry workers joined us. When they start singing and playing along it’s really special.”
All levels are welcome to join. There is no prior rehearsing, and each month the group ranges in size.
“There is a core group that shows up, but sometimes we have eight people and other times, like during last December’s Christmas ‘Jammie Jam’ we’ve had 35,” Orne said. She recalled another time when the jam inspired two Orcas women to purchase ukuleles of their own.
Updates and information about the monthly jam can be found on Facebook under Floating Ukulele Jam.