Sitting in the front row of the Victoria Clipper fast ferry, I could feel the bow gently rise and fall while making our way out of Victoria Harbour and into a westerly gale blowing down the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The motion wasn’t of discomfort, but one of knowing. Having spent quite a bit of time on the Strait on my own boat, I knew what we were up against to get south across this sometimes wild and unpredictable expanse of water in such conditions.
At the helm, Captain Dave knew it too, and with an strong ebb tide fighting the gale, he expected sea conditions to be rough, particularly at the eastern end of the Strait in Admiralty Inlet. Instead of taking the typical path toward Admiralty, he chose to route us on a more comfortable downwind course away from Victoria, skirting the south sides of San Juan and Lopez islands before passing through Washington’s prominent and breathtaking Deception Pass.
The sun was shining bright as we moved quickly with the swell and in about an hour’s time, we were slowing down to make our way through the pass. On our approach, I joined other passengers outside on the aft viewing deck while passing under the bridge and it was a vantage point that I’d never seen before. This was my first ride on a Clipper catamaran and after spending so much time at or around 6-knots on my boat, it was a real treat to make it so far so fast.
Once through Deception and into the calmer waters on the east side of Whidbey Island, I was invited to join the three-man crew in the bridge for the rest of the ride south. And if being down below and on the viewing deck was a different view, the vantage point from the helm was unlike any other.
The captain, engineer and mate — who all happened to be named Dave — invited me into the cockpit with open arms and after exchanging pleasantries, they gave me a short rundown on the vessel, her intricacies and answered some frequently asked questions.
Icons on the Salish Sea
All three vessels in Clipper Navigation, Inc’s fleet of high speed passenger catamarans are unmistakeable sights to boaters and landlubbers between Seattle and Victoria. They speed up and down Puget Sound in the 25 to 30 knot range year round, with one daily roundtrip on the Seattle-Victoria route in the winter, and then in summer, they up the number to three, with one of those boats making a stop at Friday Harbor. According to Captain Dave, trips are rarely canceled due to weather, as they are good at creating routes that keep the vessels in relatively comfortable seas.
The vessel I was aboard for the mid-March ride-along was the aptly name Victoria Clipper. Built in Bergen, Norway, she’s 127-long with a 30-foot beam, 13-foot draft, passenger capacity of 293 and a crew ranging from 5 to 12 depending on time of year and passenger volume. Powering this fast cat are two 2,685 hp diesel engines coupled with KaMeWa Waterjet drives. As an boater would expect, the Victoria Clipper is equipped with a full compliment of navigation and communication equipment and it was interesting to look it all over.
Suggestions from the helm
While part of my goal in hitching a ride on the Clipper was for the experience of it all, my main objective as a Puget Sound boater was to get a vantage point from the helm and to ask the captain and crew what they see on a near daily basis. And, of course, I wanted to find out if they had any tips for recreational boaters in order to see how we can best share our local waterways.
Once back up to speed and heading quickly south down Saratoga Passage and then into the Sound, I listened intently as they talked amongst themselves and on the radio with ferries and Seattle Traffic. Along with a constant watch, the radar and chartplotters were always in use, and I stood by as they dodged logs and debris, and gave a wide berth to a police vessel assisting a boater.
When I asked what advice they had for area mariners, the answer came very quickly but with a chuckle, “Rule 10! Follow Rule 10!”
For those unfamiliar with Rule 10 in the COLREGS (find it here), I’ll paraphrase: Stay clear of the traffic separation zones! The Daves said that one of their biggest issues, especially in the summer, is with boats criss-crossing the lanes, going the wrong way in them or just plain camping out in the zone like it’s not even there. They explained further that a big problem can be when they have multiple pleasure boats steering from point to point, which causes them to cross the lanes at very shallow angles. The issue with this is that it creates a long grid across the lanes of various tracks of boats that they have to account for. The simple advice, then, is that when you’re crossing the traffic separation zones, do so at a right angle. Know where you are in them and cross as quickly as you can.
Another tip from the helm was that boaters need to know how to use their radios and need to be passive listeners while on the water if possible. While channel 16 is good to have on, they suggested that if you are able to monitor 13 and or Seattle Traffic on 14 and 5A, then you can collect info on who and what is coming your way and take appropriate action well before an issue arrises. (For the ins and outs of Seattle Vessel Traffic Service go here.)
One piece of modern equipment that has become very helpful for both commercial and recreational boaters is AIS. When I asked how much they use it when tracking recreational boats, the answer was simple. “A lot. It gives us a definitive way to see you.” With AIS information on screen, the crew could see what kind of vessel they were coming upon, how fast it was going and at what heading — all great data for anyone looking. So if you’re wavering on getting an AIS, know that people actually are paying attention.
Lastly, Captain Dave wanted to remind boaters on smaller vessels, especially powerboats, that they need to be especially vigilant while on the water because of their size. Also, because the Clipper’s vessels are traveling so fast, if you’re not keeping a proper lookout, they can be on top you before you know it. “We’ve never come close to having an incident,” he added, “But it makes sense that smaller boats are just harder to see.” This became especially true while approaching a small recreational fishing boat off Edmonds, as we tracked it from quite aways out on radar before it became truly visible through binoculars.
Due to our slightly longer route to Seattle, we approached the city just after sunset, providing one last memorable moment on the trip. And when seemingly right on cue, first mate Dave said, “I always love coming into Seattle at night. It’s so pretty.” We all couldn’t help but agree.
Editor’s Note: A big thank you goes out to everyone aboard the Victoria Clipper for having me aboard. To find out more about about taking the fast ferry, visit clippervacations.com.