“They’re hiring women now!” Ferry captain reflects on 46 years of service

Written by Heather Ervin
Capt. Marsha Morse with Washington State Ferries

Capt. Marsha Morse retired from Washington State Ferries after over 46 years of service.

ML: Any funny or even scary stories?

MM: One of the most unsettling experiences of my career was when we ran aground at the north end of Vashon on the ferry Quinault. I was an ordinary seaman working in the passenger cabin.

It was cold, wintery weather and we had left the Kitsap peninsula dock for Vashon Island. This was early on a weekday morning and dark. We had the passenger cabin already pretty full of commuters.

As we approached the Vashon dock we slowed down. This was all pretty normal. Then all of a sudden everything went black and eerily quiet. This was definitely not normal. We were dangerously close to the dock with no power. Within seconds, I could hear the emergency generators kick on. The few e-lights lit up so I could see to walk. Still no engines. I ran up to the bridge, which was directly above my work area.

I asked the master if there was anything I could do? This captain was an experienced off shore sailor from Athens, Greece, originally. He remained calm. He looked at me and asked, “What can we do? There is nothing to do. We are going to run aground.”

I have never felt so powerless. He was extremely calm so I didn’t feel panic. We have secondary battery powered steering for emergencies. He steered the vessel away from the auto slip, kept turning until we missed the passenger-only dock. We missed the waiting room. This was all without engine power for propulsion. The boat was just coasting. We then continued on until we went aground on the beach north west of the dock. Luck was on our side due to it being a sandy beach. We made a gentle stop.

The next order of business was to get off of the beach. Three ferries operate on the North end of Vashon to Seattle so the captain radioed to one of the other boats, the Klahowya.

They quickly came to help us. The deckhands passed over a mooring line and it was secured to our No. 2 end off shore cleats. The Klahowya started to pull and the lines took a strain. The Quinault slowly moved off of the beach and clear. We made our way to the tie up slip and waited for a safety inspection including divers who went down and inspected the hull for damage. The rudder and propeller were also examined.

The verdict?

No significant damage. There were some barnacles scraped off and a little paint damaged on the hull. Thanks to the captains cool thinking and skill. A happy outcome for what could have been a serious allision and possibly injuries.

ML: If you could tell those entering the maritime industry anything what would it be?

MM: What seems to have worked for me is to honor my career in the maritime by upgrading, studying, reading, take classes and being persistent about career growth even when there were delays and detours. I also found I could learn from everyone. I looked for mentors. I would willingly take courses the WSF offered.

I would respect and take care of myself and respect others. This holistically included physically, emotionally and spiritually. It could be challenging in the maritime industry. Basics like getting enough sleep and eating regular meals were not a given. I expected challenges.

Being a good shipmate and pulling your own weight goes without saying. Setting some personal boundaries was very important. Having a sense of humor was critically important too. It helped with perspective. Many times I would have to “pick my battles.” I would listen to advice like “It is just water off of a duck’s back, Marsha” or “consider the source.” This taught me to not over react to comments. I especially liked participating in crew meals, celebrating holidays and birthday parties with my ferryboat family. These events enhanced morale and improved team cohesiveness.

I have made an effort to keep in touch with family and friends. I prioritized relationships and participated in holidays and celebrations whenever I could. This was even if it meant attending before or after going on watch on the vessel tired or not. I missed a fair share of them.

I have also continued my education and hobbies to keep rounding out my life. This was through both experiences and personal and spiritual growth. I completed my MA Whole Systems degree.

I have found it helps for me to be there and present for others. This may mean listening when folks need to talk or teaching and encouraging a shipmate to improve their skills and upgrade their documents when they felt stuck or challenged. There were numerous opportunities for conflict resolution practice. We spent much of our waking hours working with our crewmembers. Crew dynamics could be good or not so good. It became what we chose to make it. It takes a team pulling together to have real success.

I have learned it is important to take vacations and have rest and relaxation. Some systems modeling research found that a vacation every three months reduces accumulated stress the most. Productivity increases and morale is improved when we have regular breaks. It took me more than a few years to learn this. We in this industry pride ourselves on pushing to the max.

I recommend to enjoy and find inspiration from the beauty in nature on the water, appreciate the gifts in others, have compassion, do your work, be a team player, overlook a few flaws and look forward to your next adventure.

ML: What do you plan to do now that you are retired?

MM: I am looking forward to the freedom to pursue some interests and travel. Spending more time with family and friends is high on my list of priorities. Taking classes, more music, art and reading are also hopefully in my future. Attending church and participating in studies and personal growth groups will take more of my time.

Travel to Australia has been delayed due to the pandemic closure. I will visit my brother and his family in Castlemaine as soon as things open up a bit more. Arizona is a more likely destination. Two of my brothers and their wives spend the winters near Phoenix. I may visit there soon.

Community service appeals to me and I would love to do some consulting or teaching using my Whole Systems design background. I am moving into being a support person for the maritime industry. The SCI maritime chaplains program recommends trainings and offers support for that path. I will now be able to take the recommended classes.

Music is a love of mine. I enjoy playing pipe organ for church services and participating in jazz, classical and old time fiddle music groups. Equine assisted therapeutic activities are something my horses and I enjoy in the summers. I like sharing my love of horses with others teaching natural training and riding lessons. Equine assisted team building programs may be possible in the future.

My hope was always to be active in retirement. I am lucky to be active at this stage and in gratitude would like to use my experience and resources to help others.

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