Did you know that the Washington State Ferry System is the largest in the United States and the third largest in the world? You are sure to see one of the iconic white and green vessels while you’re cruising through the islands during your charter. The WSF system serves eight counties within Washington and British Columbia, with 10 routes and 20 terminals served by 22 vessels. The largest of these vessels can hold over 200 cars, and accommodates 2500 passengers. More than 22 million people use the ferries every year! They have become a tourist attraction on their own, and are one of the highlights of visiting to the San Juans.
The now-famous transportation fleet had humble beginnings in the late 19th century. Back then, the ferry service was known as the “Mosquito Fleet,” and consisted of a large number of privately owned boats on Puget Sound and its nearby waterways. The vessels were primarily steamers and sternwheelers that carried passengers, freight, and mail. They made stops at every waterfront dock. As personal automobiles began to increase in popularity in the 1950’s, the Mosquito Fleet started to decline in popularity, as the vessels in use at the time could not accomodate automobiles. At the same time, there was a strike of the ferry employees union that caused a halt in operations. Rather than stepping in to help, as the Mosquito Fleet investors expected, the State of Washington and Washington’s Department of Transportation responded first by remaining uninvolved. Later they purchased all of the fleet’s domestic assets and created the Washington State Ferries. The state intended to run ferry service only until cross-sound bridges could be built, however plans for these bridges were never approved, and the Washington State Department of Transportation runs the ferry system to this day. In addition to the ferry fleet operated by the Transportation Department, there are many other ferries in the state that are operated by individual counties and tribes, such as the ferry that crosses Hale Passage between the mainland and Lummi Island near Bellingham.