PIER 56, NOON AND 3:30 P.M.; AFTER JUNE 6, 10 A.M., 1 P.M., 3:30 P.M., AND 6:30 P.M.; $27.50
You're probably thinking . . .
For a few bucks, you can hop a Washington state ferry and sail across Puget Sound in comfort, quiet, and anonymity. Why spend $27.50 to sit on a squat vessel with chatty tourists listening to a tour guide serve up boosterish prattle about the great Northwest?
Here's what you get
It's a lovely spring afternoon down here on Pier 56, but I have only eight fellow travelers. One of them, a Japanese man busily playing into stereotype with his fancy camera, is standing in the sunshine on deck; the other half-dozen middle-aged white folks are with me, woozily swaying inside the carpeted cabin (suitable for a hotel function room with its forlorn bar and weirdly unnautical chairs). The captain comes on the loudspeaker—he's got that casually authoritative tone of an airline pilot—and says we're about to untie. He lets us know that the "heads" are located toward the stern and that there are no fewer than 350 life jackets on board. He claims the boat, the Goodtime III, had 30 schoolkids on it that morning, and we're lucky to have such a comparatively peaceful trip. He also encourages us to pay a visit to Lindsey the bartender ("Sometimes she gets bored down there"). I feel safe.
The motor kicks in, the swaying stops, and I step outside to enjoy the ride. Karen, our friendly and girlish tour guide who doubles as a deckhand, starts up her spiel, and I, a Seattle native, am instantly alive with the joy of learning: Each of those big red cranes cost $6.4 million and is operated by one person; Harbor Island is the third-largest man-made island in the world; the tugboat races that go on during the Maritime Festival hearken back to the days of the free-for-all waterfront, when the first tug to reach a boat in need got the job. Karen even explains how the giant grain elevator at Myrtle Edwards Park works. I am rapt.
Then Karen announces, very spontaneously, that we "might have a treat." The captain has slowed the engine, and I'm thinking, "orca!" But as we pull up alongside a buoy, it turns out to be a sea lion, and an extremely phlegmatic one at that—despite our bartender Lindsey's very impressive sea lion "bark," rather like a deep-throated Scooby Doo, the creature is unroused.
They're pushing the drinks again. We're told that "Lindsey's in a good mood" and that Coronas are now $4.
We clear Magnolia and cruise our way into the Locks, asserting Argosy's priority over "pleasure boats." I've never gone through the Locks, if you can believe that. Nor have I ever really understood how they work. But one of my traveling companions is way ahead of the game: "They gonna close these bulkheads back here," he says, "and raise ya up." And so they did. It was fascinating and fun, and, if my new friend is to be believed, better than going through the Panama Canal.
"Welcome to the freshwater!" Karen exclaims as we set off toward Lake Union. Relaxing atop the cabin of the boat, she offers up delightful and up-to-date details on the myriad ships parked along the canal—the factory trawlers, fish processing vessels, seiners, etc.—as well as the shipyards and dry dock businesses we pass, the Sleepless in Seattle houseboat, and the history of the Zymogenetics building. Seeing Seattle from its inner waterways with a helpful guide truly does reveal a quality of the place that you totally miss when trudging around town all the time.
With a plea from the captain for a "token of appreciation" for Karen (mostly unheeded, as near as I can tell), we disembark on the shores of Lake Union, where the nine of us are met by not one but two giant 50-seater Gray Line buses with uniformed drivers: one offering to return us to the pier, the other to return us to any area hotels. "They can't be making much off this," says one of my companions.
Save this one for . . .
Relatives with naval or Coast Guard experience; young salts; anyone desiring some fresh air; anyone with a tolerance for jokes such as "They call Bainbridge Island a 'bedroom community.' I guess the people out there sleep a lot."
Karen says the best place to buy Washington apples is not Washington state; all the good ones are sent to our trading partners.
I'll always remember . . .
The three-person crew of the nearly-empty Goodtime III instantly sniffed me out as a local—and an extremely suspicious one at that. My note taking nearly caused the tour guide to have an anxiety attack (and who can blame her?). On the other hand, I got a white wine upgrade: Covey Run for the price of house.
Mark D. Fefer