Cruisin’ Puget Sound’s waters with a ferry captain

Capt. Dave Frombach has been a Washington State Ferries captain for 17 years. The Poulsbo native currently operates vessels on the Bremerton-Seattle ferry route. - Jesse Beals/staff photo
Capt. Dave Frombach has been a Washington State Ferries captain for 17 years. The Poulsbo native currently operates vessels on the Bremerton-Seattle ferry route.
— image credit: Jesse Beals/staff photo

Seattle’s skyline unfolds behind a cluster of sailboats polka-dotting Puget Sound and the south shores of Bainbridge Island begin to shrink.

You’re in the wheelhouse of the Walla Walla ferry, rounding the corner of Rich Passage toward the Emerald City. It feels like the top of the world.

Welcome to Capt. Dave Frombach’s office.

A 29-year Washington State Ferries (WSF) employee and lifelong resident of Kitsap County, Frombach, 48, earned his captain’s license 17 years ago and has shuttled riders across Pacific Northwest waters ever since.

He recently welcomed the Central Kitsap Reporter to his perch on the Walla Walla, giving us a bird’s-eye view on a day in the life of a ferry boat captain.

Climbing the ferry

food chain

Like most WSF captains, Frombach paid his dues with WSF before reaching the top, earning his stripes through hard grunt work as a 19-year-old student and beyond. He worked his first two years during summers, weekends and holidays.

“For me, it was just gonna be a summer job,” said Frombach, who remembers motoring his 12-foot childhood aluminum boat around Lemolo Point in Poulsbo. “I started at the bottom of the barrel scrubbing toilets, dumping ash trays, cleaning up in the cabin.”

He discovered after two years the ferry system often hires in-house officers, giving employees opportunities to advance.

“I could see the ferry system was one of the few places that a guy can go from the very bottom to the very top. The only thing really stopping you is yourself,” Frombach said. “When I came to realize that, I’m going, ‘You know, that’s something that interests me.’”

Not having found a true calling away from the ocean, Frombach soon made the plunge and began to climb the ferry ladder.

“The water was my first real love, so to speak,” he said. “As it turned out, I decided to quit school to pursue this full time.”

He memorized ocean depths, buoy locations, proper characteristics, traffic lights and traffic names and completed a series of written exams.

“You’ve gotta do that by memory... Not any fun,” he said. “They equivocate the amount of memorization and schooling (in becoming a captain) to earning a master’s degree in college.”

Frombach attended Crawford Nautical School in Seattle and completed a long series of requirements on the water — 15 round-trips on every run with another captain, first aid training and safety classes, among others. He logged what are called “seaman hours” and qualified for an Able Seaman’s Ticket. After 12 years climbing the ranks, he landed a captain job in the early ’90s.

On the boat

Walla Walla translates in the Nez Perce dialect to “place of many waters,” a fitting description for a boat that first splashed the salt of Puget Sound in 1972.

Today, Frombach boards the 440-foot Jumbo Class vessel and will transport riders back and forth between Bremerton and Seattle, a run he has manned for nearly five years.

The route hasn’t changed since 2003, but the ferry, crew, passenger load and weather vary frequently.

“Actually, in the last year, myself and my crew have worked six different boats on this schedule on the Bremerton run,” Frombach said, mentioning the Chelan, Hyak, Issaquah, Kaleetan, Yakima and Walla Walla boats. “What’s here, that’s what we have to run.”

Those boats range in size, capacity and class — there are 11 different classes of boats in the WSF fleet — and make each trip a little different.

“Every trip is different, that’s one of the cool things about the job,” Frombach explained. “Every trip you’ve got a whole new load of passengers, another crossing to make, different tides, different currents, different boats. Every trip (has) its own little unique characteristics.”

His week begins early Friday morning — Frombach works five days on and two days off — and ends Tuesday night. The eight-hour shifts allow time for three round-trip crossings.

The first part of a shift is spent prepping the boat for a day of safe sailing, with specific duties varying daily.

“Before we even leave the dock there’s a checklist of stuff I need to go through,” Frombach explained.

Captains call the chief engineer in the engine room, check steering, back-up steering and lighting, take inventory of crew members and administer Coast Guard-required tests including fire, rescue and abandon ship drills, all of which are required on either a quarterly or weekly basis.

“Safety is a big thing, that’s kinda my forte,” Frombach said. “My number one focus is the safety of the passengers and the crew, that’s what I gotta channel my focus on, big time. I can’t emphasize that enough.”

When the boat — and crew — is ready passengers, cars, bicycles and the like scoot on board.

Crossing the Sound

Jumbo Class ferries like the Walla Walla cruise at 17 or 18 knots, translating to about 20 mph. Frombach slows to 13.5 knots through Rich Passage to reduce the boat’s wake. Barring unusual circumstances, the run between Bremerton and Seattle is an hour each way, a duration Frombach enjoys.

“(The runs) all got their pros and cons, they really do,” he explained, contrasting his run to the ‘bing, bing, bing’ tempo of the Southworth-Vashon-Fauntleroy route. “This is a pace that I prefer.”

And while most trips across the water are routine, some can be stressful — and surprising.

“The part that’s a little more stressful about this run (Bremerton-Seattle) is in the fall and winter, when fog season hits, having to deal with Rich (Passage) in the fog,” Frombach said. “You can probably ask any captain, that’s the one thing that none of us like, the fog.”

On one trip about three years ago, Frombach’s crew rescued two kayakers from the waters of Rich Passage.

“In Rich (Passage) that water can just roar through there like a river when the tide is going in or out, big time,” he said. “At that particular time it looked just like rapids in there, (the water) was running so big.”

Frombach stopped the boat — at full speed it takes about a minute to stop a fully-fueled Jumbo Class ferry — and sounded the general alarm, alerting his crew and passengers of the situation. Rescuers pulled the kayakers safely on board.

“We came along at the right time,” he said, smiling, “they were pretty darn happy.”

Seahawks — and Mariners — crowds, too, make for interesting voyages.

“I pack that Seahawks crowd home. The Seahawks (fans) tend to be ... spirited,” he said.

Medical emergencies, whale sightings and the always unpredictable Mother Nature are part of the job description, too.

Life after a long day on the water

The captain spends down time with his wife, daughter and the family’s two dogs, also fitting in a few other hobbies.

While he pulled the plug on water skiing a few years ago because “it’s a little hard on the body at 48,” Frombach enjoys home-brewing, muscle cars — he owns a 1970 Dodge Challenger — and the music of Led Zeppelin.

“I’m an old classic rocker,” he said of his Zeppelin CD and DVD collection.

Frombach hopes to retire when he’s 55 years old, after his daughter, a rising freshman at North Kitsap High School, completes college. By then, he’ll have 36 years of ferry boat experience.

Until he sheds his captain’s vest, however, Frombach will continue to call the wheelhouse his second home.

“For somebody (who) grew up on the water, it’s a dream come true getting to continue to work on the water,” he said. “There are trying times, obviously, but, in general, I love naviagting the boat, manning the boat.”

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