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Anatomy of a Speed Run

Anatomy of a Speed Run

The alarm went off at 5:20 am and I rolled around in bed until the light came on. Sachi was up first and fed the dogs, who were slightly confused. They’d seen this before and were wondering: Are we going, too? We were up to catch the 7 am ferry to the mainland.

As always, we bring food and a bunch of water bottles for us and the dogs. Wine totes from the grocery store work really well for that.

water bottles in a tote

✅ Sustenance

The longer we live on Orcas Island, and at the mercy of ferries, the more we learn to optimize. It’s normal to visit the mainland as a day trip. You take an hour-long ferry ride over, run errands, and come back on the ferry. The question becomes: What can you get done between ferries? If you plan poorly, you might waste hours waiting for the next ferry. This is where optimization matters most.

This time of year, there are two ferry options for the return home, a 3 pm and a 7 pm sailing. In any other season of the year, it would be difficult to get reservations on these sailings because they’d be full of tourists. In January, we can get reservations for one, both, or show up and hope for the best. As a general rule, we don’t leave these things to chance. 

We left home at 6:15 am, both dogs curled in the seats, with the goal of making the 3 pm ferry home. It was going to be close. Our list was full of errands with unknown durations. Things had to line up just right to work.

boarding a ferry

✅ Caught the 7 am ferry

The original reason for the trip was a doctor’s appointment. Once it was on the calendar, our thoughts turned to what else we could do during the trip. Our car needed its 75k mile service. We needed things from Costco. We needed to eat and get gas. How could we optimize our time?

A complicating factor was that our errands were spread across NW Washington. When I made the doctor’s appointment, I also made an appointment to get our car serviced at the dealership, which is 45 minutes from the doctor’s office, up Interstate 5, in Bellingham. 

The dealership was our first destination and we arrived, with both of our cars, by 9:45 am.

✅ Dropped off the car

We told the intake guy at the service counter a familiar story: We were in a time crunch and trying to make a 3 pm ferry. We’d need the car ready by about 1:15 to make it work. Service people in our region are used to islanders on speed runs. He was gracious and said he’d see what he could do. This variable had the potential to change our plans. If the car was ready at 1:30 instead, we might be pushed to the 7 pm ferry.

We needed to work Costco into the mix and decided to visit the one near the dealership. As we parked at Costco, Sachi said we could only spend 30 minutes inside and we both took it as a challenge. It was a small trip… milk, lots of veggies, etc. They were out of eggs. EGGS. For one of the first times ever, we approached the checkout without a line. The universe was aligning. As Sachi paid, I ordered us two hot dog combos for $3 in total. There was no time for other food options. We made it back to the car in 30 minutes.

✅ Costco Groceries

✅ Brunch

Next was my doctor’s appointment, 45 minutes away. We drove down I-5 and arrived with a few minutes to spare. We took the dogs on a quick walk and fed them.

two dogs in a car

✅ Dog Care

Every minute that went by added a bit of pressure. They called me in and the doctor arrived in a reasonable amount of time. We talked for 10 minutes or so and I was trying to be curt. This variable was working in our favor and I didn’t want to compromise it.

✅ Doctors Appointment

I returned to a car full of excited dogs and Sachi focused on the task at hand. We agreed that we’d immediately head back up I-5 toward the dealership with the hope that the car would be ready. Before we left the parking lot, I received a text that it would be ready by 12:30. Sachi looked at me with a smile, “We’re going to make it.”

We drove up 45 minutes up I-5 and picked up the car with a bit of time to spare.

✅ Picked Up the Car

Sachi had an idea for adding one more stop. Mainland gas is cheaper, especially at Costco. If we hurried, we could fill both cars on the way to the ferry. So we drove back down I-5 to the second Costco of the day to fill up.

✅ Gas for Both Cars

We arrived at the ferry terminal by the skin of our teeth and were both looking for a late lunch. Sachi, as usual, had planned ahead. We ate leftover chicken and rice as we made our way back to Orcas Island. It tasted amazing because it was tinged with victory.

✅ Late Lunch

The speed run was successful and Sachi slept on the ferry.

✅ Nap

We arrived home before dark.

A Return to Herb’s ???

A Return to Herb’s ???

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.


The Tillikum Arrives at Orcas Island
The Tillikum Arrives at Orcas Island

I suppose it’s possible to never leave Orcas Island. With good health and tolerance for mild isolation, one could live on the island indefinitely. For most, however, leaving is required from time to time, and that means boarding a ferry for an hour-long trip to the mainland where family, Costco and other forms of abundance await.

Along with trips to the mainland, there is another popular ferry route that is limited to the San Juan Islands; an “inter-island” route. This route is serviced by a sixty-year-old ferry named Tillikum, or affectionately “Tilly”, that runs all-day-everyday among four of the most populated islands. She is the closest we have to a road that links the islands, both socially and commercially.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend, Jesse, on a neighboring island asked if I could help him with a house project and I jumped at the chance to see him and ride the ferry on a nice autumn day. Jesse’s house is on San Juan Island, which is home to Friday Harbor, the county’s seaside commercial center and tourist trap.

When the morning arrived, I carefully packed a backpack with snacks, sunglasses and my drone so that I could take overhead photos of his house. As I packed, I thought the backpack would be easy to forget and that I had to be careful; it had precious cargo. Maybe that was on my mind when I left the house without two things that I looked forward to using on the 45-minute ferry ride: a full flask of coffee and my headphones.

I drove to the Orcas ferry terminal, parked the car at its free parking lot and walked down the hill to the terminal to catch the 10:30 ferry. Riding the inter-island ferry is always free to walk-on passengers and that was my plan. I’d walk-on and disembark at Friday Harbor where Jesse would pick me up and drive to his house.

By the terminal, there is a petite, but mighty, grocery store that makes espresso and delicious homemade pastries and I never miss a chance to grab a scone before boarding. Usually, the store is a hive of activity and a place where locals cross paths. When we first started coming to the island, I wanted to be someone who knew other locals in the store. It seemed like a rite of passage. On this trip, I got to be that person when I saw Allie, one of our first island friends. She and her partner, RJ, hosted the party that eventually connected us with Drew, our builder. Allie and I ended up sharing a ferry booth on the ride to Friday Harbor and both delighted in seeing harbor seals frolic along the way. The thought of missing headphones never crossed my mind. 

After we docked at 11:15, I disembarked and met Jesse for the short drive to his house. He’s currently renovating it and we spent the day cutting holes in walls, installing appliances and assembling furniture. As the day drew to a close, we planned to get a beer and early dinner in town before my 5:30 ferry and never made time to fly the drone, which sat safely in my backpack.

We parked in Friday Harbor and I decided to take my bag with me, knowing that I’d probably go straight to the ferry and that if someone stole it from the car, I’d never live it down. We ended up at a dive bar called Herb’s Tavern. And as we sat down, I put the bag in the seat next to me and noted that it was easy for me to see and remember to grab when leaving.

Over a beer and a Reuben sandwich, Jesse and I reviewed the day’s work and talked about Seattle life versus island life. We used to be neighbors and I enjoyed having time to reconnect. In fact, I was probably so engaged that time got away from me. With the ferry departure time approaching quickly, we paid the bill and just before leaving the table, I looked back and said words that I hear consistently from Sachi, “Do you have everything… phone, wallet, keys?” Everything seemed in order as we rushed out the door.

In minutes, I was alone on the Tillikum wishing I had my headphones when I realized that I’d made a huge mistake. My backpack, with my drone, was still sitting in the chair at Herb’s Tavern. Shit. It was the one thing I needed to remember. As the ferry pulled away from the dock, I could only think about Sachi rolling her eyes. Sadly, this is not out of character for me. I called Herb’s and had them store the backpack until I could return. The bartender said he’d place it in the locked “liquor room” and asked if I’d be back that night. Heh. No, I would not be back that night. I was was on the last ferry to Orcas Island.

Most people have left something at a bar or restaurant that required retrieval. Usually it involves a u-turn or a short drive. But this was different. I left something on another island. I’d have to spend hours taking a ferry to retrieve it. What a mess. I arrived home that night with a sheepish grin and a plan. The next morning, I would repeat the entire ferry process, with one exception. I would attempt to disembark in Friday Harbor, grab my backpack and board the same ferry, bound for Orcas. 

The next morning I left home with nothing but headphones, a full flask of coffee and a bit of stress that I could get off and back onto the ferry in time. Like the day before, I went to the store for a scone, but they were out. But I did see Ezra, someone I knew from the island. I told him about my plan and he shrugged as he said: “Well, there are worse ways to spend the day than on a boat.” I had to agree.

Once again, I was on the 10:30 ferry to Friday Harbor. In our region this time of year, the sun never gets very high and it seemed to follow me around the ferry as it wound its way through the islands. I switched from one side of the boat to the other to escape the glare as walkers circled the deck to get in a bit of exercise. I recognized a few people but talked to no one. I was on a mission.

As Tilly approached the terminal at Friday Harbor I called Herb’s to ask them to have the bag ready and they were happy to oblige. Perhaps I was not the first person to attempt the ferry gambit. I waited with a few dozen walk-on passengers for the gate to open and rushed to Herb’s to get the backpack. Thanks to my call, the bartender had my bag ready and handed it off like a relay as I rushed back to the boat. If I missed it, I’d have to wait three hours for the next one.

The waiting area at the terminal was empty when I arrived because the other passengers had already boarded. Would they still let me on? As I made my way down the loading dock with the vehicles, a ferry worker motioned me on and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Once I made it to the passenger deck, I accounted for everything. I had my backpack, my coffee flask and my headphones for my fourth ferry voyage in two days. I sat listening to music and watched as the islands passed by my window like a movie. This trip was a result of a careless error and was a waste of time, but I didn’t mind. There are worse ways to spend a day than on a boat.

the passenger deck

If you’d like to read about another ferry ride, check out Aboard the Elwha.

Aboard the Elwha Ferry ⛴ ?

Aboard the Elwha Ferry ⛴ ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.


I’ve always considered ferry trips in the Pacific Northwest to be as interesting as the destinations. They are little cruises through beautiful scenery that can make for a uniquely NW experience. I assumed, in going to Orcas Island so often, they would get old. But, it seems I’ve grown to love them more.

It takes about an hour and forty minutes to drive from Seattle to the ferry dock in Anacortes and we usually arrive early. The dock is adjacent to a boardwalk by the beach and a paved path called the Guemes Trail that’s perfect for pre-ferry dog walks.

pre-ferry dog walks

On this trip, the tide was lower than I’d ever seen and I found I could get close to the ruins of an old salmon cannery that used to exist on a pier over the water and take heretofore impossible photos. Pilings that used to support the cannery now support birdhouses that appear to be having conversations.

old salmon cannery

My photography detour knocked us off schedule and soon we heard the muffled echos of a ferry announcement a half mile away. The only words we could make out were, “Lopez, Shaw, and Orcas Island” in the jumble of sounds that reminded me of Charlie Brown’s mom. We both looked at each other, raised our eyebrows, did an about-face and headed back toward the dock with the dogs in tow. We could see cars driving onto the boat in the distance. Were they driving around our parked car to get there?

Intellectually, we knew this was not our boat, but anxiety crept into the backs of our minds like it does when you’re late for a flight. Did we miscalculate? Did the schedule change? We checked the schedule on our phones, rushed back to the car and then found we had time. The announcement we heard was for walk-on passengers only. Soon after, we boarded the beast.

boarded the beast

Every ferry trip has a personality. In the summer, it can be a frantic mess. The San Juan ferries are overflowing with cars and people, usually clad in the latest REI fashions, ready for an island getaway. Families and groups of friends fill the oversized booths that line the edges of the boat’s interior. Kids run laps and people assemble interminable jigsaw puzzles that live on the ferry’s tables.

This trip was different. If summer weekends are a rock concert, this one was cool jazz. It was a Sunday evening headed toward the islands; a trip fit for residents. We planned this trip, like all others, to avoid the traffic and hassle of weekday rush hour.

The ferry was almost empty and the setting sun cast long shadows through the rounded windows. It felt like a Wes Anderson film full of color and symmetry. This ferry was the Elwha, which was built in 1968 and sports its age with modest and utilitarian style.

long shadows through the rounded windows

Just as we got seated, we heard an announcement that usually alerts passengers about food available in the galley on the second floor. This announcement included a strange addendum: “By the way, two foreign nationals are working the galley today, please go up and say hello to Boris and Natasha!” We chuckled. There must be a story.

A bit later we found the galley empty, except for a few of the crew, who were sitting at the tables with food from home. I assumed this was the aforementioned Boris and Natasha and the crew member who named them. I asked, “Which one of you is Boris?”

The tattooed guy ringing me up at the register said, “I guess that’s me?”

At that moment, another member of the crew playfully rushed through the galley with a familiar voice and fake Russian accent, yelling, “Natasha, you’re burning my fish! Natasha, my FIIIISH!” The cool jazz of the passenger deck was now balanced with improv comedy in the galley.

As the sun approached the horizon, we passed two other ferries heading east, the Yakima and the Hyak, both “Super” class, holding up to 2,000 passengers and 144 cars. Washington ferry names often reference local Native American tribes and words. “Hyak” is jargon for “fast or speedy” in the language of the Chinook. Elwha, our boat this day, means “elk”.

I waited on the wind-blown outside deck for the ferries to pass so I could get the photo below of the Hyak speeding past Mount Baker, both icons of the Pacific Northwest.

wind-blown outside deck

Sitting across from Sachi in a booth, I could tell that something was on her mind. We left the dogs in our packed car with a bag of groceries we thought would be safe. If they looked hard enough they could reach a pound of frozen ground pork. Sachi’s mind is constantly thinking through scenarios and ways to avoid negative outcomes and I have learned to see it on her face. What were they doing down there? They had a walk. We hoped they were sleeping.

Then, out of the blue, an announcement came over the loudspeaker that every tourist (and local, really) wants to hear: “A pod of orca whales is visible on our port side.”

This was not a joke and every person on the ferry quickly found a window after quickly asking themselves, “Which side is port?”

Sure enough, in the distance, you could clearly see the dorsal fins and spouts of three or four whales. What a treat.

After nearly an hour, we reached Lopez Island and waited for a few cars to depart before heading to Orcas, which is just around the corner.

Approaching the dock, I prepared for a tradition that has been in place since we first started going to the Yurt. When we roll off the ferry, I queue up a few upbeat pop songs, turn the volume up a little too loud, and we sing and dance in our seats as our car takes the winding island roads to the Yurt.

The Guy on the Ferry with South Carolina Plates ⛴ ?

The Guy on the Ferry with South Carolina Plates ⛴ ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.


The Guy with South Carolina Plates

Would the owner of a white Toyota Tacoma, with South Carolina plates, please go to your vehicle?

This was not something I expected or wanted to hear coming from a loudspeaker of a ferry in the middle of Puget Sound, but there it was. My truck had gone and gotten into trouble.

As I made my way down to the car deck, I imagined my fellow passengers waiting and watching for the person who now confirmed every stereotype they had about the South. They had opinions, and I’m quite sure the phrase “South Carolina plates” caused the ferry to list, just a bit, from eye-rolls alone.

Having arrived in Seattle only weeks before I was already self-conscious about fitting in and adapting in this new environment. I desperately wanted to feel like a local who had it all under control. And now the public announcement had outed me as the guy from South Carolina who didn’t know how to park properly on a ferry. And I only lived in South Carolina for two years!

My heart raced as I walked closer to the truck; a walk of shame. What could have possibly happened? Two ferry representatives were standing near the tailgate with knowing smiles. One of them radioed that I was now on the scene and no further announcements were necessary. They led me around to the front of the truck where I saw the source of the problem. The front bumper of my truck was now resting on the back bumper of a small sedan. They explained, based on plenty of experience I’m sure, that I had left my manual transmission in neutral and forgotten to use the parking brake. When the ferry left the dock, the motion caused my truck to drift onto the bumper of the car in front of it. Typical South Carolina mistake, right?

Soon enough, they called for the owner of the sedan, without mention of this person’s license plates, to come to their car. To me, it sounded like the victim was summoned to the scene of an interstate crime. He arrived and we discussed how to decouple the vehicles with the least damage possible. I climbed into the truck, put it in reverse and slowly moved backward as the sound of scratching metal echoed off the metal walls of the hulking boat. We all cringed and I felt a bit of relief.

His bumper sported a nice new set of scratch marks but was not damaged otherwise. My truck was fine. I apologized, we exchanged insurance information and it was done. For the rest of the ferry ride, I tried to blend back into the general population. My secret seemed safe.

A few weeks later, I received a call from the sedan owner. He let me know that he was not going to fix the bumper and would not file a claim with the insurance company. I breathed a sigh of relief. Just before hanging up the phone, he said in a friendly tone, “So, you’re off the hook. Welcome to Seattle!”

I’ll never forget those words. There was no better welcome to the city for a young man with South Carolina plates.

Today, I’m on Washington State ferries a few times a month and often hear an announcement for someone to tend to their vehicle. Just a week ago, Sachi and I both smiled when we heard these words:

“Would the owner of a gunmetal Jeep with a dog inside, or that used to have a dog inside, please go to your vehicle. That is all.”

We looked around. Somewhere on the boat, a poor soul, not unlike me, was on their own walk of shame, this time to collect a dog. Through the giggles and eye-rolls, I empathized. As a Seattleite, it was my time to give them a break.