On Friday as Captain David Wilson prepared the Issaquah for an 8:45 a.m. sailing from Fauntleroy to Southworth, he noticed a large barge approaching from the south.
“We’ll have to pass him,” Wilson said, looking at a blinking red radar screen that noted the speed and name of the barge, the Tecumseh.
Ron Calhoun, who helped sail the boat that morning as the ferry’s quartermaster, piped in, explaining that Wilson, who had several options in a situation like this, would likely decide to point the ferry north toward Blake Island as he made the crossing, giving the barge space to keep moving up the East Passage.
As if on cue, Wilson, 66, picked up a black phone and radioed the Tecumseh, informing its captain that the Issaquah would make a large sweep north, giving the barge plenty of berth.
“See, I knew it,” Calhoun said. “That’s how long we’ve been working together.”
Indeed, much of the crew of the Washington State Ferries has gotten to know Wilson well in his 40 years on the water. And on Friday, just days before Wilson, 66, was set to retire, many crew members aboard the Issaquah said the white-haired and soft-spoken captain would be missed. Wilson’s last day on the ferry is today.
“He’s one of the best skippers I’ve ever had,” Calhoun said.
Asked why he chose a career on ferries, Wilson, taking a break in the wheelhouse that morning, gestured around him at the sunny, panoramic view of Puget Sound. It’s a scene — though not always so sunny — that he has seen from 5:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., five days a week.
“This is my office,” he said with a grin.
Wilson, who is also a Vashon resident, knows what it’s like to go without a view. As a young man, he joined the Coast Guard and worked on an ice breaker that was based in Seattle and traveled to the Arctic and Antarctic. While he has fond memories of seeing polar bears, penguins and “horizons full of walruses,” he said, as an engineering officer, he spent most of his time below deck in the boat’s engine room.
In the early 1970s, he said he walked off the icebreaker and onto a ferry in Seattle to ask if he could have a job.
“I wanted to work where there was a window and a view,” he said.
In four decades with the Washington State Ferries, Wilson has been on several Vashon boats and has climbed the ranks in the wheelhouse, becoming a captain at 40. After spending eight years on the south end of Vashon sailing the now-retired Rhododendron, which he called his “favorite boat in the whole fleet,” Wilson has been on the Issaquah, one of the larger boats on the north end, for the last dozen years.
And even after decades on the ferries, the back-and-forth nature of the system has never gotten old, he said.
“You never know what the day may hold,” he said.
One day in the 1990s held an emergency when a woman jumped overboard and was rescued by the crew; another held a serious engine room fire. When the fire began, Wilson happened to be moving the boat to another location, meaning there were no cars on deck when temperatures began to rise.
“If cars would have been on the boat, their tires would have been melting,” he said.
He also remembers in 2002 when Springer, an orphaned orca took a special liking to Vashon, and in particular the Evergreen State, which Wilson sailed at the time. He saw the young whale almost daily for months.
“That was a very unique experience for all of us,” he said.
But one day that especially stands out for Wilson is Inauguration Day 1993, when a fierce, record-setting storm hit the region and at one point shut down every ferry route in the system except the triangle route. Wilson’s boat battled large waves and gusts of up to 70 mph.
“It was deemed not a risk to life. … We were taking some serious waves on the car deck,” he said.
Through it all, the easygoing captain with a quick laugh has kept his cool, he said, and was never concerned for the safety of his boat. He described himself as comfortable but vigilant at the helm, especially when he considers everything he carries on the large ship.
“It’s like a floating city, really,” he said.
Unlike some ferry captains, Wilson said, he feels he can relate to the commuters he transports. He and his wife are part of a Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Tacoma and also volunteer regularly at a deaf school there, taking them off the south end of the island about four times a week.
“I know what it’s like to be the first car not to make it on the boat,” he said. “I know what it’s like to be one minute late,” he said.
For that reason, Wilson said, he tends to have a little bit of compassion before he pulls away.
“I say ‘We’ll take that guy.’ It might have been me, or it might have been my neighbor,” he said.
Next month, Wilson and his wife will tell their Vashon neighbors goodbye when they retire to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The move feels bittersweet, he said. He and his wife will miss Vashon, but they are looking for a sunnier spot and are also interested in volunteering at a deaf school there.
“Everything the Puget Sound is, Santa Fe is not,” he said.
What he’ll miss most about his days on the sound, however, is a sense of serving his neighbors, he said. He and his wife have lived on Vashon for 20 years, and he’s gotten to know many of the people he transported daily on the ferry.
“It feels good to take my neighbors back and forth,” he said. “It feels better than mass transit.”