Finding home on a ferry in Zanzibar


For The Beachcomber

The sun was particularly fierce as I walked down the dock to a waiting ferry in Zanzibar last fall, and I was cranky from waking up at 5 that morning to get there. The boat was relatively small with the words “safety first” plastered in two different places. After what happened on this route a few months earlier, when a boat sank and hundreds of people perished, you can’t be too careful, I thought.

I was living in Tanzania at the time as part of a study abroad program, and this visit to Zanzibar, a small country off the coast of Tanzania, was an excursion I and a handful of other students in the program had decided to take.

I walked onto the flimsy ramp, showing the ticket collector my ticket to Pemba, one of Zanzibar’s islands. I was in a daze, going through the motions in a herd of people. The pushiest among them bumped me as they moved past, wiping their sweat on my already sweaty body. Well, this is going to be a fun three hours, I thought.

As I made my way through the crowded ferry, I noted the orange lifesavers strapped to the walls, the evacuation plans posted in various places, the large windows, navy blue benches and table surfaces of fake wood. One member of my program noticed a sign, “Please, No Sports Cleats,” and laughed. We hadn’t seen many sports cleats lately. The sides of the benches noted the numbers of adult and child life preservers they contained. One of those numbers was crossed out with sharpie; apparently, I realized, the number was now different.

I passed a framed article about a crew from a Washington state-owned ferry called the Skagit that rescued three teenage kayakers who were hypothermic in 1991. The article praised the state ferry system, a routine day on a Vashon passenger ferry. Wait. What?

Then it dawned on me: We had just boarded the MV Skagit, a former Vashon passenger-only boat and one I remembered well — a double-decker that used to taxi my family and me to and from downtown Seattle. Sitting next to one of the big windows so characteristic of Vashon ferries, I suddenly expected to look out and see Vashon’s evergreens, not the Arabic-style buildings of Zanzibar.

When we set off, I watched the blue waves on the side of the boat froth with white. It was difficult to understand where in the world I was. I had many memories of this boat, near-empty of passengers, faithfully cutting its way through Puget Sound. Now, people were crammed on every bench; others, who didn’t have seats, were lying on the floor. Is this what an alternate universe feels like, I wondered.

But I also felt as though a piece of home was here with me in Tanzania, checking up on me, reminding me that once this crazy experience was over I would have a place and people to sail home to. Part of me wanted to dock on Vashon instead of Pemba. I had to remind myself it would happen soon enough.

During my brief excursion to Zanzibar, I rode the Skagit three times — once from Zanzibar, the main island, to Pemba, a second time from Pemba back to Zanzibar and a third time from Zanzibar to the mainland. All three times the Skagit didn’t fail to blow my mind. On the last ride, I noticed a piece of paper that had been taped to the wall of the boat since its Vashon days.

Dated Sept. 25, 2009, it was written by Don Duncan, the Skagit’s engineer at the time and a Washington State Ferries’ employee who was about to be reassigned to another route. The Skagit, and the route it served, was due to be transferred to the newly formed King County Ferry District. Don’s letter was a beautiful, even poignant, farewell to a boat he clearly loved and a route he loved serving. “This is the day I hoped would never come,” he began. “To say I am saddened is an understatement.”

He went on to note the next chapter of his life, the vacation he planned to take, an upcoming race with his beloved samoyeds.

“I wish you all well and hope our paths may cross again,” he concluded. “If Washington State Ferries ever gets back into the Passenger Only Service and a Seattle/Vashon run is reinstated, I will be the first to apply.”

After I read the letter, I slyly took it off the wall. No one else on this boat thought that piece of paper was nearly as cool as I did. I felt an odd sense of ownership of the things on the boat. The signs, the windows, the framed article — they were all a part of my childhood, my identity as a Vashon Islander. Didn’t they belong with me, I thought, more than they belonged here in a foreign land?

Maybe the result of my finding a Vashon ferry in Zanzibar was my newfound understanding that home isn’t a place in the world, but a feeling. I certainly felt at home on that boat. And stealing a piece of paper, I told myself, was not as big a deal as stealing a framed article, though, I must admit, I couldn’t help but notice that framed article would have been easy to remove.


— Chelsea Hansen, a 2009 graduate of Vashon High School, is studying anthropology at Macalester College. She wrote this essay in November, before last month’s tragic sinking of the Skagit, for a blog she kept during her semester in Tanzania.


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