Friends and Relatives

The Washington State Ferries (WSF) have been in the regional news quite a lot lately. The usual delays during the tourist-laden summer months were more intense than usual this year, making headlines in The Seattle Times. In July, WSF spokesperson Ian Sterling told the Times at least 57 round-trip sailings had been cancelled due to staff shortages (compared to only ten cancellations in the same time frame in 2019). Then there were the usual mechanical breakdowns in the aging fleet that took some vessels out of service. None of those challenges discouraged travelers, though. All summer it seemed everyone in the Pacific Northwest who’d abandoned vacations last year decided to hop on a ferry. Sterling reported the nearly 86,000 riders on July 3 were the most in a single day since Sept. 21, 2019. 

For the San Juans Islands (including Lopez Island where I live), these vessels are the only practical link for vehicles, goods, and services between the islands and the mainland. Recent weeks have been especially distressing for islanders stranded for hours waiting for a vessel to take them to the mainland, to another San Juan Island, or to return home. 

Still, I continue to have a thing for ferries, especially the M/V Tillikum, affectionately referred to as “the Interisland.” For a year, I rode and wrote on this oldest vessel in the WSF fleet as it cruised among four San Juan islands: Lopez, Shaw, Orcas, and San Juan/Friday Harbor. I worried a bit when the Tillikum broke down a couple times in recent weeks—we all know her days are numbered—and rejoiced when she was back in service in a few days.

Readers who follow me won’t be surprised to know that the Tillikum figures prominently in my forthcoming essay collection, Writer in a Life Vest I’ve researched the ferry a good bit and was particularly intrigued by how she was named. Here’s an excerpt from the essay, “Friends and Relatives,”  that might pique your curiosity, too.

Washington State Ferries (WSF) are considered part of the state’s highway network; the fleet of twenty-one vessels serves eight Washington counties as well as British Columbia, Canada. It’s the Washington State Transportation Commission’s (WSTC) responsibility to name these vessels as well as state highways and bridges. For ferries, state guidelines require the names have “statewide significance and represent Washington’s image and culture,” while avoiding “commercial overtones and anything offensive.” Names of tribes, bodies of water, geographic locations, or terms that relate to nautical heritage meet those requirements.

While the criteria for ferry names are concise, the selection process is, well, not.

According to the WSTC, well in advance of a ferry naming, the agency issues a public request for names and describes deadlines and requirements. Once the date for name proposals has passed, the three Commissioners who serve as the “Ferry Team” review all submissions for compliance with established guidelines. Eligible options are sent to the Ferry Advisory Executive Council and the WSF, and they’re posted on the WSTC website for review and input. If possible, the Ferry Riders Opinion Group (F.R.O.G.) will also be surveyed about the eligible names. 

Upon completion of the above steps, eligible names are advanced to the seven‐member WSTC Commission,  along with all input received and a recommendation from the Ferry Team. The full Commission then selects the name. 

It’s possible this thorough process came about after the naming of two new vessels in 1958. According to sailing magazine “48° North” and the Saltwater People Historical Society, Lloyd Nelson, a member of the State Toll Bridge Authority, had been tasked with naming the new ferries in the state’s then seven-year-old ferry system. The names he chose, perhaps influenced by the christening of the M/V Evergreen State in 1954, were the Vacation State and the Washington State. A small item on a back page of the January 14, 1958 Seattle Times announced the names. Evidently, William O. Thorniley read the notice.

Thorniley, an employee of the private Black Ball Ferry Line before Washington State acquired it in 1951, was a long-time advocate of the use of Native American words for the ferries. When he learned about Nelson’s proposed names, he enlisted the Seattle Chamber of Commerce to reject them. Over the next month, hundreds of citizens and newspapers joined in the debate, sending suggestions to the State Toll Bridge Authority. In the midst of the protest, Nelson withdrew his suggestions, and the state set up a nine-member committee, including Thorniley, to select names. After a three-month effort, one vessel was named Klahowya, meaning “greeting.” 

For the other ferry, the committee selected Tillikum.  The word is Chinook jargon, with elements from Chinook, Nootka, English, French, and other languages that means “friends and relatives.” 

The oldest ferry operating in the WSF system, and the sole remaining Evergreen State-class ferry, the MV Tillikum’s history is even more complex and convoluted than its naming process.

Built in 1959 to carry one thousand passengers and one hundred vehicles, the Tillikum first sailed between Seattle and Bainbridge Island.

As the population boomed in the Puget Sound region, a larger and faster Super-class ferry was designed to supplement the small Evergreen State-class models. In 1968, the Super-class M/V Kaleetan replaced the Tillikum, which moved to the Edmonds-Kingston run. In the early 1980s, the Tillikum was displaced by the Issaquah-class ferry, M/V Chelan. Next, she became a relief boat for nearly a decade until she settled on the Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth run in the early 1990s. Rebuilt in 1994, the Tillikum became a reserve vessel until her sister, Klahowya, retired in 2017.  That’s when the Tillikum became the San Juan Islands’ interisland vessel, where she remains today.

Chapter One in Orca: Shared Waters, Shared Home (Braided River, 2021) by Seattle Times journalist Lynda V. Mapes, is titled “The People That Live Under the Sea.” It includes a story told by the late Bill James, hereditary chief of the Lummi people, of how they believe the orcas are related to them. With that creation story as a backdrop, Mapes describes the plight of the orcas, or, as the Lummi call them, the blackfish. She writes specifically of the Southern Resident orcas and how the “human and orca cultures of the Salish Sea have shared these waters for thousands of years. And like the Lummi and other Coast Salish communities, the southern resident orca families share customs, culture, language, a deep knowledge of the water, and food.” 

From Mapes’s reporting, it’s easy to conclude that Coast Salish words are the language of the Salish Sea. So it’s fitting that now, with the exception of the M/V Rhododendron, all current WSF vessels have tribal names. They include:

Chelan from the word Tsillan for “deep water,”

Sealth for Suquamish and Duwamish Chief Sealth, after whom the City of Seattle was named,

Tokitae, Coast Salish dialect for “nice day, pretty colors, ”

Kittitas, the tribe of “shoal people” who lived along the shallow portion of the Yakima River near Ellensburg, also defined as “land of bread.”

And, though it took many years for the Tillikum to make her way to the daily circuit among the San Juan Islands, she is now among “friends and relatives.” 

Writer in a Life Vest is scheduled for publication in March 2022. Just this week I received a box of Advance Reader Copies to send to reviewers.

If you know anyone who writes book reviews for blogs, journals, or other publications, I’d welcome hearing about how to contact them. You can pre-order a copy for yourself, too, at Homebound Publications.

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