Recollecting a lifetime on the Salish Sea

By Thomas Mullen
Posted 9/20/23

Thomas Mullen


“I was here at the start,” recalled Gunnar Joslyn, retired Commodore of the Washington State Ferry fleet, now living high up on the …

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Recollecting a lifetime on the Salish Sea


Thomas Mullen


“I was here at the start,” recalled Gunnar Joslyn, retired Commodore of the Washington State Ferry fleet, now living high up on the peninsula that protects Quilcene Bay.

But that’s not quite true — Joslyn was there before the start.

His first time aboard a Salish Sea ferry predates his memories, while still in his mother’s womb.

His earliest memories are of being carried in his mother’s arms, walking to his father’s workplace, and taking ferry rides aboard wooden-hulled, long-retired ships. 

Joslyn’s father was a captain working for Blackball, the private ferry system which was eventually acquired by the state of Washington.

“I started working in the ferry system when I was just 16. That was in ’54, when the state had just taken over.

“The state bought the Olympic Ferry system in Port Townsend. They took that over in ’74 and that’s when I started working there,” he explained of his 40 years aboard ferries.

The ships were smaller then.

“We had a master, a mate, four deck hands, a chief engineer, and an oiler. We were sort of bare bones on those early ferries.”

He said he loved being a captain, but doesn’t get too misty-eyed about his days as a pilot.

“It’s pretty hard to get romantic about the job when you’re in it all your life. I always enjoyed that part of it, being on the water. You’re not exactly outdoors but you’re close enough. Looking through the glass you can see the seasons change but yeah, it was the best job I ever had.”

Docking at Port Townsend, he confessed, was the most difficult aspect of his work.

“I did it for so long. It is the most challenging route because of the amount of bad weather. Nowhere else did you have to tie the boat, because of the size of the seas. When I started with the ferry there it landed down at Quincy Street. So it wasn’t unusual to suspend service there. Those ferries had a relatively low seaboard and with enough seawater, it could potentially get down below,” he recalled.

“The entrance there was exposed to the west and you get some pretty large seas there; plus it can be pretty foggy there.”

As a young man he had decided to pursue a different way of life so after a stint in the Navy, he went to school at Central Washington University and landed a job teaching English.

It didn’t take hold.

“I had sort of a mercenary attitude at that point, so I went back as a deck hand, got my licenses, and stayed on.”

By 1966 he was made captain.

“It was just a way of life. My dad got my brother Tony and I jobs when we were kids.”

Joslyn moved to Montana after his retirement, lured by the mountains and the fly fishing, but he returned to Washington and these days he mostly fishes Hood Canal.

“I miss Montana but it was time for me to go. I was in my 70s and I knew it was time, so I got closer to my family.”

Other than the foul weather, Joslyn avoided the mishaps, run-ins and collisions, which seem to plague the ferry system these days. He shrugged.

“We’re all human. Especially during the summer months, those are amateur boaters out there and they don’t really realize how big and fast you are. They’re close to the water so you have to be vigilant. There’s all kinds of water craft around you.”