Winslow’s sole working shipyard: WSF legacy lives on, amidst modern trials, at Eagle Harbor facility

The last remaining working waterfront on Bainbridge Island is also the most important.

The last remaining working waterfront on Bainbridge Island is also the most important.

Inside the bustling shops and offices at the Eagle Harbor Maintenance Facility is a glimpse of a bygone Bainbridge, a rough-edged, blue collar, down-and-dirty trade town where the work gets hard but it always gets done — and it gets done right.

It has to. It has to because the work done at Eagle Harbor ensures the safety and reliability of the Washington State Ferries’ vessels and terminals. It is the hub of the behind-the-scenes action for the nation’s largest ferry system, tucked away near the heart of this serene suburban isle’s artsy downtown, just around the corner from the busiest route of them all: Winslow to Seattle.

The 115 skilled laborers and craftspersons working at Eagle Harbor today — representing nine different shops including pipe, electric, shore gang, welding, machine, carpenter, sheet metal and insulation — ensure the safe passage of millions of ferry passengers annually.

The staff today is much smaller than it once was, the facility’s presence on the island is also much less obvious now and very few of the staff live on Bainbridge anymore. In fact, many islanders may pass the place, or at least close by it, every day and not really understand the crucial goings-on behind the gates.

“I think they know that we’re here, that there’s boats, but what we do — they don’t know,” said Joe Wettleson, a Bainbridge resident since 1975 and the Eagle Harbor shore gang foreman.

“I think probably most of them don’t know what happens down here. I think a lot of the old-time folks know that this is here, but I’m kind of surprised when I tell people where I work and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s what you guys do down there?’ Or ask questions.”

Nancy Adams, an Eagle Harbor project engineer and longtime Bainbridge resident who now lives in Poulsbo, agreed.

“I’m involved with a book club here on Bainbridge and it’s interesting because a lot of people aren’t even aware of it,” she laughed. “They don’t realize it’s a working facility.”

That was not always so.

WSF is the eighth occupant in a long line of shipbuilding and maintenance outfits to call Eagle Harbor home, beginning at the turn of the 20th century with the Halls Brothers’ yard, built there in 1902. WSF has occupied the facility since the early 1960s, and was, back in the day, a much more prominent part of the island’s economy.

“We’ve had a lot of islanders work here and I think right now we have maybe two or three,” Adams said. “I remember when I started working for the ferry system, I think 50 percent was still islanders. When I grew up here it was always a thing, ‘Well, you can get a job with the ferry system.’ Working on the boats or working down here, you always knew a bunch of people, but it drifted away.”

The changing demographics of the island itself and the lack of emphasis on the trades in today’s educational system, Adams said, were primarily behind the shift away from an island-based workforce.

Personnel attrition, ensuring compliance with the state’s ever-stricter environmental regulations and serving the region’s increasing population are the biggest challenges facing the ferry system — and especially the Eagle Harbor Facility — in the coming years, explained  “R.J.” Ran Kelly, the shipyard’s senior port engineer.

“We have more work to do than we have people to do it,” Kelly said. “Over the last 20 years the available manpower in the marine industry has really declined substantially from what it used to be and so it’s harder and harder to find qualified people.”

Further complicating the filling of available spots in the Eagle Harbor work force, Kelly said, was the lack of an apprenticeship program there.

“We can hire an apprentice but it’s at the expense of hiring a journeyman,” he said. “The state mandates to the private sector that if they want to work on state ferry contracts over a certain dollar amount they have to have a certain percentage of apprentices as their employees.”

There’s no such mandates for the actual maintenance facility itself, however.

WSF also loses many skilled workers to outside opportunities, Kelly added, including the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Boeing, King County Metro, Seattle Housing Authority and the private building trades. Many of those jobs technically pay better, but Eagle Harbor staffers cite a variety of other perks, including stability, fulfilling work and guaranteed vacation and sick time as reasons to stay.

“The work is good,” Wettleson said. “It’s rewarding.”

Being one of the last remaining islanders working at the facility, he added, has given him a unique perspective on the importance of the ferries to the region – and especially Bainbridge.

“When you grow up on an island and rely on a ferry it becomes important to you in a number of ways,” he said. “Getting to Seattle, getting off the island, that’s the obvious thing. But, when you work for the system and you live on the island, you really care. At least I do. I care about the ferries. I don’t want the ferries to not run. I don’t want my friends and neighbors to be complaining about ferry boats not running. It’s a little more personal.”

Newer personnel agree.

Brandon Corkum, a career pipefitter from a family of pipefitters who joined the Eagle Harbor staff last year, said he loves working there.

“We get treated right over here,” he said. “Everybody helps each other.

“I enjoy working on boats,” he added. “The humorous thing is [that] I don’t enjoy being on them. My wife is always telling me we should go on a cruise, but I just like to work on them.”

Good help may be hard to find these days, and getting harder all the time — “There isn’t that skilled labor out there anymore,” Corkum said — but when skilled new people do join the team it’s always a good thing, Wettleson said.

“You don’t want [just] a bunch of 50-year-old guys in here because there ain’t that much aspirin,” he said.

Still, whether it’s a shop of young guns or old pros, there’s always work to do at Eagle Harbor. The ferry maintenance schedule is broken into two seasons, Kelly explained: Vessel layup season from September to May; work done on the vessels themselves in preparation for increased summer usage; and a focus on terminal maintenance from May through September.

There are no easy days.

To learn more about WSF routes and schedules, as well as career opportunities and all the latest news, visit or call 206-368-4499.