I Got Stuck on That Beached Ferry with My Cat

This is what it was like to be aboard the Walla Walla ferry when it ran aground on Bainbridge Island.

By Haley Shapley April 20, 2023

About six hundred passengers were aboard the state ferry Walla Walla when it ran aground on Bainbridge Island on Saturday. Seattle Met contributor Haley Shapley and her cat, Kai, were among them. This is their story. 

Saturday, April 15

Early afternoon: I’ve been at my parents’ house in Bremerton since Thursday, when I rushed over from Seattle with my hiking backpack and my 12-pound tabby cat, Kai. We left in a hurry due to a death in the family on Thursday morning, and these have been a long, emotionally draining few days. Now I’m trying to decide what ferry to catch home. “We always forget about the fast ferry,” my mom says. “Why don’t you look at that schedule?”

“Nah,” I respond. “Since I have Kai with me, it’s easier to spread out on the big boat.” I settle on the 4:15 p.m. out of Bremerton. “At least you’re on a good boat!” she says. And I think to myself that she’s right. I don’t care for the uncomfortable benches and spotty cell service on the newer Olympic-class ferries, like the Chimacum and Suquamish, and am always happy to avoid them.

3:40 p.m.: I’m in my parents’ bedroom. Kai is squarely planted under the center of the bed, with no way to reach him. While he loves going to Grandma’s house and loves being home, he hates the travel part in between. We resort to making banging noises to flush him out. I quickly transfer him into his carrier as he makes one last mewing plea to be set free.

4:10 p.m.: I’m standing in line to board the ferry and realize there are two main crowds: people going to the Mariners game, and people dressed to the nines for what looks like a Navy-related ball. My feet feel sympathy pains at some of the six-inch heels I see. (I’m old now, and know to always wear sneakers with my fancy clothes until swapping shoes at the last possible moment.)

4:15 p.m.: I settle into a booth on the circa-1973 Walla Walla, tucking Kai’s carrier between me and the wall, where he feels most hidden. I get out my laptop and look forward to some uninterrupted time to finish my taxes. Or at least look forward to it as much as one can look forward to that.

4:20 to 4:33 p.m.: This ferry is pretty busy. People are jazzed about their Saturday night plans, I am feeling crusty because I’ve been wearing the same clothes for days. Then a mom and a kid walk by and spill an entire can of pop on the floor and then DO NOTHING ABOUT IT.

I start thinking about how I’d handle that situation—would I go to the bathroom for paper towels? Find a ferry worker? Let my kid troubleshoot as a lesson in problem-solving?—then I try to tune everything out. As I’m plugging numbers into a spreadsheet, the lights on the ferry flicker. There’s an ominous feeling in the air as everyone looks around at each other.A message crackles over the loudspeaker:

“We’ve lost steering and propulsion. Brace for impact.”

4:34 p.m.: Panic sets in around me. I try to make sense of what’s about to happen. During the flicker, I thought maybe power was going out in the cabin and that we’d be without lights for the trip—annoying, but no big deal. Losing the ability to steer? That did not occur to me. I text my family: “OMG, the ferry has lost steering and propulsion. 😭” I call my mom and say, “I’m in an emergency situation.” I immediately regret scaring her when she’s already grieving, but I’m really not sure what’s about to happen.

4:36 p.m.: We run aground.

4:37 p.m.: I text: “Okay, we’re okay. We crashed into the shore, but it was very soft.”

Ferry workers begin walking down the aisles, telling everyone to put on a life jacket. After hundreds of ferry rides, I finally get to bust the seal on one of the benches and lift it (with considerable effort) to reveal the orange life vests beneath. The word “Nisqually” is crossed out on mine, replaced underneath in black marker with “Walla Walla.”

Kids are crying, babies are screaming, and one guy is 100 percent sure he’s still making it to the Mariners game tonight.

My family tries to figure out where I am, and I realize I have no idea. My nautical geography skills leave something to be desired. I ask a sailor, who also doesn’t know, which makes me feel better (and then maybe worse?). But he has the smart idea to look at Google Maps, which tells us we’re on Bainbridge Island — but instead of Eagle Harbor, where one would normally catch the BI ferry, we’re nestled on Pleasant Beach. The residents here are used to seeing the ferry from afar, but today they get the zoomed-in perspective.

4:47 p.m.: Everyone is directed to Passenger Assembly Station 1 at the back of the boat. There’s a sea of orange and confusion.

5:10 p.m.: We’re asked to raise our hands and not lower them until we’ve been counted. There are almost 600 of us. My arm falls asleep three times before I’m counted. Kai doesn’t raise his paw.

5:25 p.m.: We are told over the loudspeaker that in 20 minutes something will happen. The exact nature of that “something” is left ambiguous.

5:45 p.m.: It’s been 20 minutes. Nothing has happened.

5:50 p.m.: I’m standing up, stretching my legs, when my gaze lands on a man 10 feet away from me. His face contorts and he’s shaking and I realize he’s having a seizure. I pick up my phone to call 911 and it takes me a second to register —wait, that’s not gonna do a whole lot of good at this moment. I start yelling, “Emergency! Emergency!” Another woman runs to find a doctor. Later, I’ll hear that the man is in stable condition.

5:52 p.m.: My family arrives at the beach and begins to assess the situation from shore. Based on what they’re hearing, we’re most likely going to leave via the emergency evacuation slides, deployed from the car deck. “Guess this wasn’t the good ferry after all,” my mom says over the phone. I start to worry about how everyone’s going to make it off the boat this way, especially the ones in evening gowns. I’m not sure my cat is a slide kinda guy.

6:38 p.m.: I walk to the port side of the boat to try to glimpse my family on the beach. Over here, it’s easier to breathe and I realize just how stuffy it’s become over at ol’ Passenger Assembly Station 1. “It’s inhumane over there,” a man tells me.

6:40 p.m.: “The decision has been made to abandon ship,” blares the loudspeaker voice. “The decision has been made to abandon ship.” Comforting.

6:43 p.m.: I notice that a handful of people are quietly walking to the front of the boat, and I’m filled with hope that they’re the guinea pigs who get to go down the slides first. I grab Kai and my backpack and hurriedly follow all the way to the bow deck, where the fresh air feels incredible. After waving at my family, I quickly realize there’s no way to get to the slides from here, so I contemplate how to best position myself near the car deck stairs so I can get off this vessel as soon as possible.

7:00 p.m.: Now that everyone has moved from one end of the ferry to another, the captain informs us that we’ll be hanging tight until the tides return to the levels they were at when we ran aground. “Settle in,” he says.

“Settle in” is officially my second-least favorite thing he’s said today, after “Brace for impact.” Then he gets back on the loudspeaker to clarify: “I know this isn’t the news anyone wants to hear, but we won’t be able to do anything until 11:30 p.m. We’re working to get you food.” This is the first point at which I feel on the verge of losing it. The life vest is choking me and this stupid turtleneck I thought was so fashionable when I put it on four days ago is closing in on my airway. I’m convinced Kai is going to have a tiny cat heart attack.

7:08 p.m.: I borrow a phone charger from my new friend, Diana, who is still hoping to catch her first-ever flight out of the country. We have run through all the potential plans for how she’ll get to Sea-Tac, whether we end up in Seattle, Eagle Harbor, Pleasant Beach, or back in Bremerton, but with this newest announcement, hope doesn’t float. I start to do my taxes again. Kai is sweating. (Yes, cats can sweat — I didn’t know either.) I start to think I misnamed him, given that Kai means “sea” in Hawaiian and he does not appear to care for the sea one bit.

Time starts to lose all meaning. Then there’s an announcement that we’re going to be able to transfer to fast ferries instead of waiting until 11:30 to slide under the moonlight. We’re told we’re going “to shore.” What shore we’re going to is not clarified.

7:30 p.m.: As we pass the three-hour mark since impact, I make a joke about being on a three-hour tour, a la Gilligan’s Island. Fellow marooned passengers politely laugh.

7:45 p.m.: Free food is now available in the galley, and we’re asked to be nice to fellow passengers. I don’t even bother to go, but all I see being brought back are bags of Sun Chips and water bottles.

8:04 p.m.: I line up to get onto the fast ferry, where walk-on passengers are being prioritized. I’m in the first group to get on, although I still have no clue where we’re going—only that it has to be better than where we’ve been.

8:12 p.m.: As we pull away, everyone begins to cheer. From this angle, we can see how much our ferry has been listing.

8:30 p.m.: I am back to Bremerton, the place I’d been trying to escape but now welcome because at least it’s solid ground. Unfortunately, there’s no one here to pick me up, because my family is still on the road back from Bainbridge Island. I later hear there were fast ferries running to take passengers to Seattle as well, but no one told us.

My neighbors text me photos from the news. I spot myself wrestling with the life jacket I tied to Kai’s carrier as everyone discards their life jackets into a big orange pile. (I wanted extra float protection for him, okay!?)

I try to go into a restaurant, but they won’t let me in with a cat. So we sit outside, where it’s just begun to sprinkle, a fitting environment for a little wallowing.

9:02 p.m.: My family picks me up and we head back to my parents’ house.

9:25 p.m.: Five feet from the front door, Kai busts out of his carrier and sprints into the pitch-dark night. He’s never been outside while not on a leash. I’m not sure there’s any cortisol left in my body, but I whip out my iPhone flashlight and trudge through the patch of woods in my parents’ yard, whispering in a sing-song voice, “Kai, it’s Mommy. I won’t make you go on a boat tonight.”

Ten minutes later, I find him hunkered behind a cement block under a staircase. We run into the house and collapse.

Monday, April 17

6:40 p.m.: It really is time to return to Seattle. We opt for the Issaquah, now plying the beleaguered Walla Walla’s route. There’s hardly anyone on this boat, and no one looks concerned either. I am still wearing the same outfit. Kai is still sweating in his carrier. We run into a ferry worker we recognize from Saturday and catch up like we’re old friends. Then we stand on the bow of the ship in Rich Passage, rain pelting down, and breathe a sigh of relief when we make the turn. Pleasant Beach is just a little more pleasant from here.

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