Notes from the Pilothouse MEET CAPTAIN DOUG SOWDON
aptain Doug Sowdon’s career with the WSDOT Ferries Division set sail in 1977, when he took a summer job aboard a ferry to support himself during college. He recalled loving the ferry ride to his family’s property on Lopez Island while growing up, so he figured he’d enjoy the work. He was right. The summer job was so enjoyable that he left the first “suit and tie” job he landed after graduation in order to return to life on the water. Eventually he worked his way “up through the hawsepipe,” from the cabin to the pilothouse, a process that can take more than a decade. “It’s a good job,” he said. (Captain Sowdon told us that the hawsepipe refers to a pipe in the bow section of a ship through which the anchor chain passes. The phrase “through the hawsepipe” refers to officers who do not attend a maritime academy, but rather, like Sowdon, climb the ranks while accumulating sea time and passing qualifying courses and examinations.) Sowdon met his wife, Betsy Carroll, while working on the ferry. They met as deckhands and both worked their way up together. Carroll was the third woman in Washington State to achieve the rank of ferryboat captain. Now retired, she wrote a graphic novel, Course Made Good, about her career in the maritime industry. When asked how many women captains currently work in the ferry system, Sowdon answered, “Not enough.” It takes time to rise through the ranks, and Sowdon said there just aren’t that many women in line. Though, he pointed to Port Captain Beth Stowell, the first female port captain, and expressed hope that her example would inspire others. Ferry captains are called upon to do everything from commanding a vessel and ensuring passenger safety to taking courses on new electronic navigational equipment to attending ribbon cuttings, as when the Anacortes/Sidney, 60 NorthSoundLife.com
B.C. route re-opens each spring. They also are responsible for leading the crew, as Sowdon is for the crew of the No. 3 Anacortes vessel, though the crew re-bids for assignments for each season’s schedule. When Sowdon’s crew joined us in the pilothouse, his leadership skills shined. “The crew is a lot of fun. I like the people,” Sowdon said. “What you may not know is that there is a lot that has to go right in order for this boat to work. We do checks every morning, and every job is important. The engine crew does all kinds of amazing things to keep us going.” Even as he expressed admiration for his crew’s expertise, he told cautionary tales of good-natured teasing, especially when asked to teach us a bit of nautical jargon. Don’t fall for it if another crewmember asks you to head below deck and ask the chief engineer for “relative bearing grease.” Spoiler: it doesn’t exist. A relative bearing is a navigational term that describes another boat or ship’s position relative to the ferry. Similarly, it is not advisable to attempt to gather a “fog sample,” even if you’re handed a garbage bag along with the serious request. Captain Sowdon invited us to watch the ferry land at Lopez Island from the vantage point of the pilothouse. It’s one of his favorite parts of the job. “It’s fun landing the boat,” he said. “If you’ve done a few thousand of those, the experience loses only a little glimmer. But it gets exciting in the wind or if some other challenge.” Even though it was an ordinary landing without any special challenges, it was indeed exciting to watch the landing alongside the captain, enjoying the front row view from the pilothouse.