Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 30, 2018

Ferry ‘Cross the …Fuca?

From time to time, I write about the Port of Los Angeles, which is near my house. It’s an endlessly fascinating place.

Tug Veteran Brad Nixon 1816 sm

Recently I had an opportunity to see a much different port with a similar name: Port Angeles, Washington.

PA view Brad Nixon 0375 640

Just to clarify the nomenclature, early Spanish settlers named our California city El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula in 1781. That settlement was inland, site of today’s downtown Los Angeles. Ten years later, another Spaniard, Francisco de Eliza, showed more restraint in naming the harbor he encountered Puerto de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles, leaving out the royal title, and a port from the outset. Both places refer to the same woman, but it’s relatively easy to keep them sorted out.

With a natural deep water harbor (superior in that regard to L.A.’s), and situated along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Port Angeles is the first deep water port ships encounter as they move from the Pacific Ocean into the immense Puget Sound area. That includes numerous other harbors: Seattle, Bremerton, Port Townsend and Tacoma, Washington; and Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia, to name only a few.

While immense container ships and, to a lesser degree, petroleum tankers constitute the largest amount of freight moving in and out of L.A., Port Angeles is the shipping point for timber and wood products, some petroleum and fishing, but also repair and outfitting services, as I described recently. I saw the 286 meter-long Alaskan Navigator out of Portland, Oregon moored there, for exactly that purpose.

Alaskan Navigator Brad Nixon 0252 640

The size of Port Angeles harbor is impressive, although the scale of the commercial operations is dwarfed by that of L.A. Still, there are plenty of commonalities. There’s a private boat marina, occasionally boasting a mega-yacht, tugboats, cruise ships and a large U.S. Coast Guard station at both places. Here’s the Washington installation.

Port Angeles CG Brad Nixon 0258 640

Both points are also termini for travel to and from destinations that lie about 20 miles across the water. In California, the port of Avalon on Santa Catalina Island is a popular tourist spot, although the Catalina boats also serve the approximately 4,000 people who live on the island. There are no cars or trucks on Catalina, so those are strictly passenger craft.

About the same distance from Port Angeles is a much larger port town: Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Victoria is on Vancouver Island, and must be reached by water or air; there are no bridges. As a result, a large ferry carries passengers and vehicles — including full sized semi-tractor trailers on a 90-minute trip between the cities several times a day.

MV Coho Brad Nixon 0264 640

That’s M.V. Coho (M.V. stands for “marine vessel”).

Ferries are a significantly important form of transportation everywhere in the world, on every continent, crossing rivers, lakes and an untold variety of bays, inlets and other bodies of water. For many people — probably tens or hundreds of thousands — they’re a part of everyday existence. They can be intimately small …

Venice traghetto Brad Nixon 6341 (640x480)

… or ships of daunting scale. The world’s largest ferry in terms of gross tonnage, Color Magic, is 224 meters long and can carry 2,700 passengers and 75,000 tons. It crosses the Baltic Sea from Oslo, Norway to Kiel, Germany.

M.V. Coho falls in between at 341 feet long, 72 feet wide, with capacity for 1,000 passengers and 110 vehicles.

MV Coho Brad Nixon 0261 640

If you’ve never driven your vehicle onto a ferry, the procedure looks something like this:

MV Coho Brad Nixon 0256 640

While many vehicle ferries are built to allow loading from both ends, meaning you drive straight on, then straight off, M.V. Coho loads and unloads only from the stern. That requires turning the ship to dock, as well as reversing vehicles to disembark. M.V. Coho‘s been in service since 1959.

Sailing on MV Coho

To plan your trip between Port Angeles and Victoria, consult the ferry’s website for sailing times, ticket prices, reservations and directions. It’s my understanding that one can typically show up without a reservation if you’re a foot passenger. If you’re driving, cost will vary by vehicle size and number of passengers. It’s usually advisable to have a reservation. If you have a ticket but no reservation and no unreserved spots are available, you’ll be on a standby list, and may have to wait for the next sailing, which could be four hours, or even the next day.

Vehicles should plan to arrive no later than 30 minutes ahead of sailing time in order to exercise their reservations, and one hour in advance is recommended. Once parked on board, you’re expected to leave your vehicle and occupy the passenger decks, which is better, in any case. There’s a view, food and beverages are available. There’s even a duty-free store that’ open for the quarter-hour or so the ship’s in international waters.

Note that whether on foot or driving, you’ll be crossing an international border, and should be prepared with the appropriate documentation and expect to pass through customs and immigration protocols.

Or Swim?

Looking across the Strait at Victoria, the city barely visible at the waterline, I had to wonder if anyone has swum between the two ports. Yes. A relatively small number of ultra-distance swimmers have managed it, taking between 10-12 hours, depending on conditions. In fact, as I write, a Canadian woman is preparing to swim from Victoria to Port Angeles … and then turn immediately around and swim back! It’s never been attempted. She intends to start on August 1. Here’s the story.

Have a favorite ferry crossing? I HOPE someone’s taken that ferry ‘cross the Mersey.

Licensable, high resolution versions of some photographs in this post, and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2018


  1. I’ve traveled on ferries, both with my vehicle and without. They definitely serve a useful purpose!! Your LA facilities looks so wide open compared to how I remember NYC docks. But then again that was many moons ago.


    • You’re right. There is no massive urban area crowding right to the waterfront here in L.A. The port is a vast area surrounded primarily by smaller cities, and has had a great deal of land in which to expand, so space is not nearly at such a premium as in NY.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I should have said the port HAD a great deal of room in which to grow. There is no more room to expand, for all intents and purposes. All that’s left is — just as happens in cities — more intensive use of the available land/water area (about 7500 acres). Combined with the adjacent Port of Long Beach’s 3200 acres, that’s a big parcel. But with land, as with money, there’s never enough!


  2. Nice! Thank you.
    The ferry also has a duty-free store, for the 12 or so minutes it’s in international waters.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. You’d mentioned that, but I forgot. I’ll add it to the post!


  3. I have been on only two ferries, both decades ago, during my vacations: 1. The Star Ferry in Hong Kong, and 2. the Vancouver to Victoria ferry in British Columbia.


    • I’m sorry our plans for this current trip changed, or we’d have had the Vancouver-Victoria experience, too. The Star Ferry is one I have ridden, a number of times. One of the world’s most picturesque water voyages. I’d go back tomorrow. Apropos of a recent comment, the Star Ferries are classic Streamline Moderne design, and the mooring terminal matches the same.


  4. Also, the Black Ball Line, is not part of the Washington State Ferry System, and is 100 years old this year. Happy Birth year.

    Also, also, at least the few WSFS ferrys I’ve used load at one end of the craft, and unload at the other end. The Coho has to turn around on arrival to discharge and load vehicles. Even as I write this, it’s confusing, because the cars can’t turn around after all. I mostly go walk on.

    Also, also, also Victoria is on Vancouver Island, so, there is no driving to Victoria from any direction without using the Coho, or another ferry, unless you have an aqua car.


    • Yikes. I’ve made that correction indicating one cannot drive to Victoria, from anywhere. I was thinking of Vancouver. Thank you.


  5. Is the M/V Coho named after the salmon?

    I was surprised to read that there’s a cost. Here in Texas, the ferries are considered part of the state highway system, and are free. I’ve ridden both the Bolivar ferry (Galveston to Bolivar Island) and the Port Aransas ferry (Aransas Pass to Port Aransas, which lies on a barrier island) more times than I could count. Neither is large; both load from both ends, and carry primarily passenger cars. Both stop running during storm conditions. If a hurricane’s approaching and you suddenly hear that the ferry’s stopped running, you’d best be on the mainland.

    I did cross the English Channel by ferry, long ago: no tunnel then. But the best ferry rides ever were across a river into Kentucky. I was a small child, and don’t remember where we crossed on our way to visit friends of my parents in Sturgis. But there were a few rides on a very small ferry — so small there was room only for one car and a horse drawn wagon, or two cars, or two wagons and their teams. I think it must have been a horse-drawn turnstile, because I remember ropes, and a flat wooden deck. My mother was sure we would die.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Probably compare the Coho more to that English Channel ferry (for which you did pay). Like that craft, it’s an international journey, multiplying the complexity of any sort of state subsidy. And it’s closer to the distance of a cross-channel trip, across water that can be extremely stormy.
      Yes, named after the salmon.
      Not to knock the Texas road system. All praise to those farm-to-market roads, some of the best-laid asphalt in America, out in the middle of nowhere.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Geography may not be destiny, but it certainly can shape our perceptions. I had to laugh when I realized I read your perfectly clear description of the distances and border crossings without internalizing one bit of it. No wonder we (people in general) talk past one another so often. Funny.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Generously said. Perhaps the sterling relationship and magnanimous natures of the leaders of those countries will lead to a no-charge border ferry. Whatcha think?


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