The Washington State Ferry system is the largest ferry system in the United States - it has 10 routes, 20 terminals, and 29 vessels, and in 1999 carried 11 million vehicles and 26 million people.
From the early 1900s on, ferry service on Puget Sound had been provided by a number of companies using small steamers called the "Mosquito Fleet," but by the 1940s all had been consolidated into the Puget Sound Navigation Company. A strike in the late 40s left many communities completely stranded and the state decided that the ferry system was vital enough that it needed to be taken over, so it purchased all of Puget Sound Navigation Company's
terminals, routes, and vessels. Currently, the Ferry system covers approximately 65% of its operating expenses, with the rest covered by state funding.
The Ferry System provides transportation to island communities around Seattle (Bainbridge and Vashon), and to the San Juan Islands and Sydney B.C. via the
terminal at Anacortes (about 2 hours north of Seattle). It also provides passage across the sound via its Mukilteo/Clinton, Port Townsend/Keystone, Edmonds/Kingston, Fauntleroy/Southworth, and Point Defiance/Tahlequah routes.
The ferries are mostly named in tribute to the indigenous tribes that once lived in the area. They are very distinctive-looking vessels, and blend in quite well with the area's terrain - many pictures of the Seattle waterfront include a ferry or two for effect. Passage isn't exactly cheap (especially if you're taking a vehicle), but you only pay on the outbound leg. There's really no better way to get a look at the Seattle skyline or the geography of the sound itself, which is breathtakingly beautiful. All of the ferries have numerous outdoor observation decks, and if you're stirred by the ocean wind and the smell of the sea then you'll find yourself spending a lot of time on them.
There are twelve classes of vessel serving in the fleet:
Tyee class: Tyee.
Kalama/Skagit class: Kalama, Skagit.
Passenger-Only Fast class: Chinook, Snohomish.
Hiyu class: Hiyu.
Rhododendron class: Rhododendron.
Steel Electric class: Illahee, Klickitat, Nisqually, Quinault.
Evergreen State class: Evergreen State, Klahowya, Tillikum.
Issaquah 100 class: Sealth.
Issaquah 130 class: Cathlamet, Chelan, Issaquah, Kitsap,
Super class: Elwha, Hyak, Kaleetan, Yakima.
Jumbo class: Spokane, Walla Walla.
Jumbo Mark II class: Puyallup, Tacoma, Wenatchee.
The larger vessels (Hiyu and up) have galleys on-board, where you can get a pretty good cup of coffee, a hot meal, and donuts that for some reason I've found deeply addictive.
Source: WSDOT web site