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Writing the Interisland

Iris Graville is the first writer-in-residence on the Washington State Ferries, and shares her thoughts while writing aboard the Tillikum.

For those who’ve never sailed on the Washington State Ferries, it’s hard to imagine the setting for my writing residency. I’m “writing the interisland” as WSF’s first writer-in-residence aboard the MV Tillikum. My “office” measures 310 feet in length, can carry over 1000 passengers and 87 vehicles, and travels 13 knots (about 15 mph) as it cruises among four San Juan islands: Lopez, Shaw, Orcas, and San Juan/Friday Harbor. During the fall, the ferry leaves its home berth in Friday Harbor each morning at 6:10 AM and makes 5 circles until it returns to Friday Harbor at 8:30 PM.

Iris Graville on the Tillikum, Robert S. Harrison

The WSF is considered part of the state’s “marine highways” system with a fleet of 29 ferries and ten ferry routes. This makes it the largest ferry system in the U.S., the third largest in the world, and the third largest transit system in Washington State. For the San Juans, these vessels are the only practical link for vehicles, goods, and services between the islands and the mainland.

Tillikum ferry boat, Photography by Iris Graville

The ferries transport somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 million passengers and 10 million vehicles each year, but most of them ride vessels on the waterways nearer to Seattle.  Even on the interisland, though, there’s no shortage of people-watching opportunities. When I’m in my resident role, I begin from my home on Lopez Island and write as the ferry circulates to Shaw, Orcas, and San Juan. That’s right, the Tillikum never goes to the mainland. Which is one of the reasons it’s an ideal place for me to write.

Mt. Baker seen when leaving the Lopez ferry landing, Photography by Iris Graville

It typically takes 10 to 15 minutes for the ferry to off-load vehicles and passengers and re-load, so I just stay on board while at the dock. Views like this from my “office” are hard to beat. It also helps that my desk on the ferry is free of the clutter that usually surrounds me at home—and tempts my attention to my work to wander.

WSDOT Tillikum ferry

Most important, though, is the places the ferry takes my thoughts, my wonder, my imagination. The minute I settle into one of the booths on the Tillikum, I let go of worries and “to do” lists. I feel my shoulders unknot and my brow unscrunch .  Whether the sun turns the water a silvery blue, or winds whip it into swells, my concerns and checklists remain on shore, and the critic that resides on my shoulder becomes as still as slack tide. 

Thanks for visiting my office. Please say hello if you see me here at my desk. You can follow my progress at writingtheinterisland.org.