New security rules after the Sept. 11 attacks brought the beginning of the end to what had become a highlight on Puget Sound: folk musicians, classical quartets and other buskers performing for passengers aboard state ferries.
There is one “must do” for Seattle tourists — a ferry ride across the waters of Puget Sound. In the days and years before Sept. 11, 2001, that excursion even had its own soundtrack.
Folk musicians and classical quartets performed on board, playing or busking for tips. Some even adapted their repertoire to fit the setting, with a preponderance of sea shanties and meandering tales about shipwrecks and pirates.
Today, though, the ferries are mostly quiet, except for the click of camera shutters and the thrum of the large engines. The day of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was the beginning of the end of buskers on the ferries, and recent attempts to bring the musicians back have been stymied by new security rules instituted since 9/11.
Most musicians stopped playing on the ferries when new rules required everyone to leave the boats and take all their belongings with them each time the ferry stopped at a port, or about once every 35 minutes on average.
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Musician Tania Opland started playing on weekend ferry runs between Seattle and Bainbridge Island in the mid-1980s, while taking a break from college.
“The music was a real nice diversion that filled up that empty half an hour,” said Opland, who has homes on Bainbridge Island and in Ireland, where her husband was born.
Now the multi-instrumentalist, who performs folk music around the world, says everyone brings all their “busyness” with them.
That was evident on a recent sunny afternoon, where at least a third of the people had their eyes glued to a cellphone or computer screen instead of the view.
Years ago, Opland said, music on the ferries was an essential part of the Seattle experience. Some people even checked with her before bringing their out-of-town visitors on a ferry ride to make sure they got on a boat with music, she said.
Musician Hank Cramer had 20 years of good times playing on the ferries.
“For me it was a nice second income. It was a fun thing to do on weekends,” said Cramer, 57, adding that the music “transformed a mundane ferry ride to a neat outing.”
Tourists taking a recent ferry ride from Seattle to Bainbridge Island said the experience was far from mundane, even without the musical entertainment.
“It really is beautiful,” said Tami Miller, visiting Seattle from Arroya Grande, Calif., with her daughter and husband. She said music probably would have added to the excursion, but she wasn’t sure anything could beat the experience of a warm, sunny day out on the water.
But Sean Whaley did find it hard to believe that musicians could pose a threat to the safety of passengers or crew.
“I’m not sure what musicians have to do with security, but OK,” Whaley said.
The officer in charge of marine inspection for the U.S. Coast Guard called off a pilot program to welcome musicians back on the ferries at the end of 2009, citing security concerns.
“My most significant concern is the concept of allowing any non-crew member and their gear to remain on board the vessels during security sweeps,” Captain S.E. Englebert wrote to David Moseley, assistant secretary of the state Department of Transportation.
Englebert also wrote that having the crew monitor musicians during transitions between voyages would be too difficult when they have other work to do.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, ferry employees treated the regular musicians like members of the crew, Opland said. They were welcome then to sit in the staff lounge, invited to share holiday meals and join in on other celebrations.
Heightened security wasn’t the sole reason for silencing ferryboat musicians, but it was the final straw, Cramer said. He also blames the economy and complaints from food vendors on the boats because musicians were not required to pay a fee to sell their wares.
Throughout the 1980s and well into the ’90s, musicians would pay one $2 fare, find a nice spot on a weekend ferry and spend the day playing music, talking to people and collecting tips.
The gig became less lucrative toward the end of the decade, when the ferry system started asking them to get off and pay the fare on each round trip. But most musicians weren’t scared away until after they were asked to leave the boat at every port.
“I know one particular musician who got very indignant,” Cramer said of a harp player.
Now a round-trip ferry ride from Seattle to Bainbridge Island costs walk-on passengers about $7.
Cramer, who lives in Winthrop, Okanogan County, says he sometimes still pulls out a guitar when riding the ferry.
“We made a good amount of money and we brought some joy to people’s lives,” he said. “I would jump up with joy if some young musicians just started the whole thing over again.”