In a light rain and brisk wind, Capt. Jason Mihok stood at the port bridge wing controls preparing to maneuver the ferry Victoria Clipper away from its dock on Seattle’s downtown waterfront.
At 0800, right on schedule, he ordered a deck hand to release the head line and engaged the ferry’s two waterjets to move the boat astern and away from the dock. After pivoting the boat, he headed back inside to the bridge and took up his station there. As the boat headed northwest across Elliott Bay, he throttled up and in a few minutes, the 127-foot catamaran was skimming across Puget Sound at 28 knots, bound for Victoria, British Columbia, about 70 miles and less than three hours away.
This was a typically raw November day in the Northwest, but back in the passenger compartment people were in a good mood. It was a Friday and many of the 222 passengers were looking forward to an enjoyable weekend in Victoria, an attractive seaside city with striking architecture, good restaurants and notable museums. And they were relying on Mihok and the other nine members of the crew to make the voyage quick, smooth and pleasant.
Capt. Jason Mihok on the bridge of Victoria Clipper IV, one of two fast ferries used on the Seattle-Victoria run.
Mihok uses the exterior control station to move the ferry away from the dock in Seattle. As staff captain, he also oversees the other deck officers.
The quick part would be relatively easy to achieve. The 1986 Norwegian-built catamaran is powered by two 2,685-hp MTU 16V 396 TE 74L diesels driving Kamewa waterjets that give the vessel a cruising speed of about 30 knots. The whole operation has a distinctly international flavor. Or as Mihok described it: “a Norwegian boat with German engines, Swedish waterjets and an American crew going to Canada.”
The smooth and pleasant part, however, would not be a given, in view of the winds and wave conditions commonly encountered on Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The comfort of the passengers would be highly dependent on the navigational and boathandling skills of Mihok and his crew.
Mihok is a hawsepiper with a degree in journalism. While in college he worked for Clipper Navigation Inc. as a deck hand for three summers. (The company uses the brand names Victoria Clipper and Clipper Vacations.) When he graduated, the appeal of the sea and a poor market for journalists at the time led him to rethink his career plans.
He has been with the ferry company for 20 years, 15 of them as a captain. With the title of staff captain, he oversees all the deck officers, but he also continues to sail as captain. He seems particularly well suited to the challenges of fast ferry operations. While he is focused on safe navigation, he is constantly trying to find the route that will make for the smoothest ride for his passengers.
“The weather is the biggest challenge of the job,” he observed. “I haven’t figured out how to control the weather yet.” While he has not figured out how to control it, he has figured out how to lessen its impact.
Access to information is key. One of the first things he did once the ferry was on its way up Puget Sound was to take out his smartphone to gather information about tides, winds and sea states. From a website with data from a wave buoy on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, he obtains wind and wave data. Weather information is also available from NOAA and University of Washington sites. He also uses smartphone apps for tide and currents and for the location of vessels beyond the range of his vessel’s AIS unit. He sometimes uses this AIS data to identify vessels up ahead so that he can contact them by radio to obtain precise information about conditions he can expect to encounter further along the route.
“Everybody navigates by smartphone,” he quipped.
As the ferry made its way north, with the Olympic Peninsula to port and Whidbey Island to starboard and winds out of the southeast, he noted that wave heights had risen a bit.
“We might do a bit of a deviation,” he said.
The ferry was now about 10 miles south of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, that is to say about halfway to Victoria. Mihok changed to a more westerly track to bring the boat closer to Marrowstone Island off the eastern side of the Olympic Peninsula.
“We’re going to cross to the west,” he said. “We’re going to use this (island) as a windbreak. It will add a few minutes. The people won’t notice, but the ride is better.”
This maneuver required taking the boat across the main shipping lanes in northern Puget Sound. “When we go out of the lane, we go around people,” he said. “It is easier for us to get out of their way than for them to get out of ours.”
The boat’s speed and maneuverability provide significant benefits in situations like this, opening up alternatives that might not be available to a conventional craft. But they also place greater demands on the crew. Things happen in a hurry on a fast ferry. Both he and the mate on this trip, Capt. Kit Carr, have to keep alert for signs of trouble.
“That’s why there are two on watch,” Mihok said. “It’s a fast-paced dynamic environment.”
He clearly finds the pace invigorating, calling his 30-knot vessel “a cool boat.”
“I thoroughly enjoy it,” he said. “People ask if it gets boring. Anything but.”
One of the things that keep it from getting boring is the abundance of deadheads. Floating logs and smaller wooden debris are abundant in Puget Sound. But the threat to a waterjet vessel is less severe than it might be to a conventional propeller-driven one.
Chief Engineer Bruce McMillan monitors the ferry’s systems from his post on the bridge.
“There’s nothing under the hull. We don’t have a propeller,” Mihok said. “You’re not going to ding a wheel. You might suck a stick from time to time.”
When new, the boat did not have grates over the water intakes, but they have since been installed. While the grates will keep larger objects out, “sticks can get through but not past the impeller,” Mihok explained.
Often debris can just be flushed out, but sometimes pieces of wood have to be removed manually. In those cases, the engineer has to go back to the engine room, open a hatch and extract the object.
During the day, the crew tries to spot deadheads and maneuver around them. After sunset, that is often not possible. But the objects seem to be more of an annoyance than an actual threat.
“At night we hit them sometimes. It wakes up the passengers,” but the boat just keeps going, Mihok said. “Waterjets are good for the route.”
Once Victoria Clipper reached the point where Puget Sound ends and the Strait of Juan de Fuca begins, Mihok continued to trend to the west, skirting the Olympic Peninsula until the ferry was just about due south of Victoria. That track protected the ferry from the winds as long as possible. And when he did head due north to cross the strait, the boat had the wind and the waves at the stern, minimizing pitch and roll.
While the boats could handle rougher conditions, “we want the passengers to arrive in Victoria in condition to enjoy their day,” he said.
At mid strait, all was going smoothly, with the engines operating at 1,930 rpm and the boat making 27.7 knots.
Chief Engineer Bruce McMillan monitors the engines from his seat on the port side of the bridge. He too is a long-term employee, with 23 years with Clipper Navigation Inc., the name of the company that operates the ferry. A graduate of the maritime program at Seattle Central Community College, he started out as an oiler on a NOAA ship, and went on to work on a variety of vessels, including other research vessels, Exxon tankers and factory trawlers in the Bering Sea.
“I left Exxon for fishing. I didn’t make a whole lot of money,” he said.
One of the two 2,685-hp MTU engines that power the Kamewa waterjets, giving the boat an operating speed of 30 knots.
When he got married, the job with Clipper Navigation allowed him to become a “lunchbox sailor,” someone who worked during the day and came home at night. He has a 17-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter.
“It’s been a god job for raising kids and having a home life,” he said.
The job gave him his first experience with waterjet propulsion. Asked how he learned the technology, he replied, “I opened up the manual and read it repeatedly.”
His knowledge about the propulsion system was about to be tested. As the ferry approached the southern tip of Vancouver Island, McMillan noticed something amiss on his gauges. “Oil is leaking from the starboard engine,” he said, and advised Mihok to throttle back to 1,600 rpm. Then an alarm went off and the engine shut itself down.
Mihok immediately went on the public address system and told passengers that one engine was down and assured them that he would keep them updated.
McMillan also swung into action. “It must have lost all its oil. Let me see if I can find out where it’s coming from,” he said as he got up from his seat and headed back to the starboard engine space to check out the problem.
A few minutes later, he was back, reporting, “There’s oil all over the place.”
The line carrying oil that circulates between the engine and the centrifuge had sprung a leak and the engine had indeed lost all its oil.
Once the boat reached Victoria, McMillan would have to try to repair the line, buy oil to replace what was lost and clean up the engine and engine space.
The company keeps a condo in Victoria for the crew to rest until the return voyage to Seattle, with a scheduled departure time of 1700. Instead of resting, McMillan would have less than six hours to make the repair and clean up the engine space. He suspected that he would be able to cap the leaking line. That would allow the ferry to operate without running the lube oil through the centrifuge until the line could be replaced.
“Well, I guess I better put on my overalls,” he said, knowing he had some hard, dirty work ahead of him.
Meanwhile, Mihok was concentrating on getting the boat safely to Victoria. With just the one good engine operating at 1,950 rpm, the boat was still able to make 14.6 knots.
Within a half hour, the ferry was approaching the breakwater that marks the entrance to Victoria Harbour. There the crew spotted an overturned boat, what looked to be a canoe perhaps 16 feet long. Since any drifting recreational boat could be an indication of people in the water, Carr called Vessel Traffic Services, which relayed the report to the Canadian Coast Guard.
Alex Wilson, an onboard attendant serving passengers in the upper lounge. In addition to the three-person bridge crew, the ferry has seven other crewmembers who attend to the needs of passengers as well as serving as deck hands.
Once in the channel leading to Victoria’s inner harbor, Victoria Clipper slowed to 7 knots and Mihok started preparing mentally for the challenge of docking the boat, which would be much less maneuverable with only one engine. He asked who would be handling the bow line to ensure that a highly skilled crewmember would get the assignment.
Gliding ahead slowly, he expertly brought the boat gently to the dock. All was secure at 1107, just 22 minutes behind schedule.
“A one-engine landing, it went pretty well,” he said.
Soon the passengers were filing ashore, following a voyage that was smooth and pleasant, though slightly less quick than scheduled.
Author’s note: Two days later, photographer Brian Gauvin and I returned to Seattle via the ferry. This time we traveled in the passenger compartment rather than on the bridge. As we sat there, off duty so to speak and drinking wine, I looked up and saw McMillan making his way aft from the bridge.
We greeted him and asked him how the repair had gone. He reported that he had been able to close off the leaking line and replace the lost oil, allowing the boat to return on schedule to Seattle. Proving once again, that while the deckies do the driving, the engineers make it possible to get to the destination.