Guemes Island might be one of the lesser-known San Juan Islands, but as a place rich in natural beauty and local history, visiting it makes for a terrific day trip. There’s only one public way to access the island, though, and that’s via the M/V (Marine Vehicle) Guemes – a small vehicle and passenger ferry owned and operated by Skagit County. The History of the Guemes Island ferry may take longer to read than the trip in the ferry itself.
The county officially began operating the ferry to Guemes (usually pronounced ‘GWAY-mus’ or ‘GWEE-mus’) Island in the early 1960s, but the history of shuttling folks across the three-quarter-mile-wide Guemes Channel goes back much further.
In the Beginning
In the days before modern sailing vessels commonly roamed the Salish Sea, Samish Indians traversed from Fidalgo to Guemes Islands via canoe. Guemes was named in 1791, during a Spanish expedition: its namesake, Juan Vicente de Guemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo (that’s really his full name), was a Spanish military officer and Viceroy of New Spain (a colonial area covering Mexico, Central America, and nearly all of what’s now the southern and central United States) from 1789 to 1794.
In 1890, the first known private ferry service was established by a man named W.C. Pyle. The steam tugboat Lola, helmed by Captain M.B. Miller, ran a dozen daily roundtrips from Fidalgo’s Ocean Dock to North Anacortes on Guemes Island. Another boat, the Glide, was a passenger rowboat that also operated during this time.
But it was a man named Harry Rickaby who put into motion what would become modern ferry service between Anacortes and Guemes. Rickaby was born in England in the late 1860s, and moved to Fidalgo Island in 1882. He became a local boat builder and, by 1902, was operating a boat house and running a vessel called the Sunny Jim from Anacortes to Guemes.
In 1912, Rickaby began captaining ferry service aboard a vessel named the Elk. It ran five times daily and was capable of carrying 35 people at a time; fare was 5 cents each way. This was followed three years later by another version of the ferry, named Elk II, which featured room for up to 60 passengers.
From Then to Now
With ferry demand increasing, Rickaby and business partner Frank Taylor (they also bottled and sold Cypress Island mineral water to Anacortes residents) soon realized an even bigger boat was needed. They placed at order with nearby Keesling Ship Yards in Anacortes, which constructed a new ferry nearly 50 feet long and weighing 86 tons.
It was called the Guemes, and began operating in 1917, the same year Sloan Shipyards opened on Guemes Island. The shipyard was constructed to build navy vessels during the American war effort, but opened late enough in the war that only four boats were launched there before it closed. By the early 1920s, it was a mere memory. With the growing use of automobiles in the area, the Guemes was also the first ferry to haul cars.
In 1920, Bill Bessner took over operation of the ferry from Rickaby, and would run it until 1948. He once lost three toes when rollers moving an engine into the ferry went over one of his feet. Sandy Bernsen took over from Bessner in 1950, and captained the ferry route until 1963. At some point, the Guemes was retrofitted to hold more vehicles; this second iteration is often referred to as the Guemes II.
The Guemes remained in operation until 1959, when it was replaced by the Almar. This ferry had been parading the Columbia River since it was built in 1947. Moved to the Guemes ferry route, it accommodated up to nine cars per trip. In 1954, its engine was replaced with one from the vessel Marguerite, which ran aground and sank off Lopez Island that September.
In 1965, Ray Separovich began captaining the ferry route, a position he’d hold until 1986. The Almar remained in use until 1979, when the current diesel-powered ferry – the 91-ton M/V Guemes – took over. The ship was built by Gladding-Hearn Shipbuilding in Somerset, Massachusetts, and holds up to 21 vehicles or nearly 100 passengers.
Over the years, the Guemes has been privy to some unique moments. In the summer of 1991, a couple was married on the ferry. In an article on the ceremony, the Anacortes American newspaper referred to the Guemes as the “Love Boat.” In 1995, Guemes crew members helped rescue the crew of a disabled vessel in the area.
In 2011, the Anacortes and Guemes ferry terminals were renovated, and plans are currently underway for the next chapter of the Guemes Island ferry. It is likely to be larger than the current ferry, and will rely on electric power.
Currently, the M/V Guemes operates every day of the year, and is estimated to transport about 200,000 vehicles and 400,000 people during each 365-day period. It makes a journey usually every half-hour, as each one-way trip usually takes just over five minutes.
The ferry also is available 24 hours a day for transporting emergency responders. During annual maintenance periods, it is briefly replaced by the passenger-only Straight Arrow, and the as-needed, vehicle-capable M/V San Juan Enterprise.
So, whether you’re traveling the ferry for the first time, or make it a daily habit, consider the history of this quaint but important vessel to the communities it serves.