Story, Photos & Video by Scott Schaefer

Last week, a demonstration boat ride embarked from the Des Moines Marina to Pier 57 in downtown Seattle, as a way to drum up support and show off the city’s proposed new passenger ferry project.

The city of Des Moines is proposing to provide commuters a passenger ferry using the Des Moines Marina as a pick-up/drop-off point. It would receive travelers from Seattle and Tacoma and elsewhere, commuting to Downtown Seattle or Tacoma, serving as a drop-off for the airport, and also support visitors from a tourism perspective.

The event was by invitation only, and I was honored to be invited, along with around 50 other guests, including local politicians, city officials, staff and more.

The demo cruise required face masks, temperature checks at check-in, and was conducted mostly outside on a fast-moving boat cruising into a northerly wind.

“You know one of my most pleasurable experiences as Mayor is watching the vision become a reality,” Mayor Matt Pina said at the start of the tour. “That’s today. This is exceptional, and this is brought to us in a great deal by the exceptional skill that our city manager has.”

“This is certainly a milestone in the history of the city and is the first step of many milestones about redeveloping both the land side and the water side of the Marina,” City Manager Michael Matthias said. “We would not be able to be here today without the incredibly strong support we received from our state and legislative delegations who provided $4 million for this project. We sincerely thank you.”

This pilot cruise on board the “Orca II” was intended to show how a potential public/private passenger ferry service could work, where the City of Des Moines might partner with a company like Great Western Attractions, which would provide a boat like this or similar. The proposed plan is to recreate a modern version of the historic “Mosquito Fleet” from the Des Moines Marina that might cruise to Tacoma, Seattle and other Puget Sound locales.

Riding on the sleek new boat helmed by Capt. Danny Lockhart and owned by the Griffith family of Great Western Attractions, the ride was solid and smooth on a steady catamaran that cruised through Puget Sound at a high speed of 24.7 Knots (roughly 28.4 MPH) through a wind that chilled the air but didn’t dampen the spirits of passengers. The guest list included City Manager Michael Matthias, Mayor Matt Pina, Deputy Mayor Jeremy Nutting, Reps. Tina Orwall, Karen Keiser, Claire Roberts and others.

Timing for the ride was around 40 (or so) minutes each way, and on this day the skies were blue and clear, temps were in the mid-70s, Mt. Rainier was out, and apparently Orcas were spotted (but I didn’t see them) while en route. Who doesn’t like being on a cool new tour boat, which also happened to have comfortable seating as well as two bars (and where a beer costs around $9)?

This particular boat, which is usually used as part of Great Western Attraction’s Salish Sea Tours at Pier 57, is 78’-feet long, holds up to 149 passengers and has a modern, yet Native American-inspired sleek design. Check out some pics and video below:

The cockpit of the Orca II was impressive and modern.

At least 8 monitors allow the captain to see what’s going on in crucial areas of the boat.

A GPS-based map that showed the boat’s location was displayed on a big screen in the lower passenger cabin.

Rear view from the stern heading towards Downtown Seattle, showcasing Normandy Park, Des Moines and Mt. Rainier.

Host family the Griffiths own and operate the Seattle Great Wheel, Wings Over Washington, Salish Sea Tours, a Carousel, and much more at Pier 57, which could end up being the Seattle dock destination if a partnership happens.

The Orca II fit nicely into the big Des Moines Marina dock.

The City has completed a passenger ferry service demand analysis, and is working closely with the Puget Sound Regional Council and other regional agencies on state legislation to support analysis of expanded passenger ferry service.

The current marina is a 20-acre, 800-slip facility that is equidistant from Tacoma and Seattle.

In 2018 more than one million visitors, and 440,000 vehicles, entered the marina. Des Moines is at the center of the residential population that works in Tacoma and Seattle. It is also contiguous to Sea-Tac airport, which is about three miles from the marina.

A passenger ferry could serve two purposes:

  1. Commuting to downtown Seattle (or other destinations like Tacoma).
  2. Tourism attraction that could serve as an “anchor” to a revitalized Des Moines Marina.

“The ferry service will also be an essential component to regional emergency plans and regional resiliency plans as it is the closest harbor to the Kent Valley, our center of warehousing and manufacturing,” a study by diedrich-rpm said. “The Kent Valley is vulnerable to flooding in an earthquake or dam breach.”

Great Western Attractions LLC has 7 total employees across all of its locations and generates $677,201 in sales (USD)., according to Dun and Bradstreet.