A puzzle aboard the Anacortes-Sidney ferry: How do the cars get off?


For a ferry that goes from one point to another with no stops in between, cars are loaded onto the ferry from one end, and en route, the cars face the direction of travel. When the ferry reaches the destination, the cars drive off. Easy peasy.

The ferry from Anacortes to Sidney makes a stop at Friday Harbor. This makes for some interesting logistics.

At Anacortes, cars are loaded from the rear,¹ and the cars destined for Friday Harbor are loaded first, so that they wind up at the front of the ferry.

direction of travel →

When the ferry arrives at Friday Harbor, those cars exit from the front of the ferry.

Friday Harbor dock

And cars from Friday Harbor enter at the front of the ferry.

Friday Harbor dock

The ferry continues onward to Sidney, but things are interesting because you have cars on the deck which are facing directly at each other. The cars which boarded in Anacortes are in the back of the ferry facing forward, but the cars which boarded in Friday Harbor are in the front of the ferry facing backward. They are pointed at each other nose-to-nose.

direction of travel →

We wondered how the three lanes of cars were going to get off the ferry, since they appeared to be blocking each other.

We split up to find the answer.

But why don't you try to puzzle it out yourself. I'll wait.

One person asked the clerk at the gift shop, who said, "The wrong-way-facing cars back out."

Another person asked someone who was identified as an engineer, who said, "The wrong-way-facing cars make a three-point U-turn on the deck."

I asked somebody wearing a bright orange safety vest, figuring they worked on the car deck. "We leave one lane with all the cars pointing in the direction of travel and empty them first. We use that empty lane to unload the other cars pointed the same way. And the cars that are facing the wrong way make a big loop on the deck to turn around. We call that flipping."

I joked, "Maybe you could get a Lazy Susan to turn the cars around."

"Actually, that's what they do on some Alaska ferries."

Okay, so we asked three different people and got three different answers. Who's right?

Turns out everybody was right. (Though I was most right.)

The last vehicle to load at Friday Harbor was a large camper van, which blocked multiple lanes. They backed out off the ferry. They were closely followed by the cars in the lane where everybody was pointing the right way. (Like, no pressure on the camper van driver.)

The ferry crew then used that empty lane to get the other two lanes of forward-facing cars off the ferry.

Finally, the wrong-facing cars made U-turns to get off. Most of them used the open space on the deck to make a U-turn, but a few made three-point turns.

¹ The ferry is symmetric and doesn't really have a "front" or a "rear", but I gave them names based on the direction of travel.

Comments (19)

  1. Smithers says:

    I came up with orange safety vest guy’s solution. The gift shop clerk’s proposal was also a possibility, but seemed far less efficient. I didn’t even consider the self-identified engineer’s option and I’ve been on enough car ferries to strongly doubt there would be enough room on a full car deck.

  2. Brendan Morgan says:

    Thanks for the article. Interesting read. Clearly shows the mindset of an engineer. Always have to know how it works :)

  3. Ace Gayhart says:

    I love the CSS animation. :)

  4. JT says:

    I have been on that ferry several times, but only before about 1990. Never thought about the situation before. Thank you for a most excellent diversion just now. Well played.

    I now live in Georgia now. Like that matters…

  5. DWalker07 says:

    The problem statement has misleading information. It says “the cars which boarded in Friday Harbor are facing backward. And they are pointed at each other nose-to-nose.”

    There is no mention that there is more than one lane on the ferry (although we could maybe guess that, it wasn’t in the illustration). The mention that the cars pointed at each other “nose to nose” doesn’t say that there are some lanes where this is not true. I suppose that the complete info would have made the problem too easy….

    1. Ian Yates says:

      I too read “We wondered how the three lanes of cars were….” and then thought “What!??”. I reread and couldn’t see reference to the lanes earlier. I guess mentioning what was observed – that there was an entire line still facing one direction may have given the game away (assuming you could see the entire line in one view, which is probably unlikely)

  6. morlamweb says:

    Easy solution: have the cars which board at Friday Harbor drive backwards onto the ferry. Perhaps even employ one of the orange-safety-vest people as a valet. All cars would be facing the direction of travel at the last dock which should ease the deboarding process.

    1. Ismo says:

      Ferry from Bari to Durres does that with big vehicles like trucks. No wonder the ferry left two hours after original departure time :-)
      It is loaded from back only, not the normal ro-ro style.

  7. Richard says:

    Dumb question. How do more people get on the ferry at Friday Harbor than get off?? Do they not fill the ferry to capacity and leave space at the front of the line(s)? Just curious? I’ve made this run multiple times and never paid attention as to how it was done. It didn’t even register that the cars loading at Friday Harbor were facing the cars loaded at Anacortes. And wouldn’t Orcas, Shaw, and Lopez be handled the same way?

    1. If more people are getting on at Friday Harbor than off, then they have to leave room at the front of the ferry at Anacortes.

  8. Martin Ibert says:

    I wonder what the fuss is about. Backing off a ferry in reverse for one or two car lengths, to me, seems to be a manageable challenge. Once you are on dry land, you can always make a three-point turn and continue forward in the right direction.

    1. You also have to traverse the boarding ramp in reverse. That camper van driver was not happy.

      1. morlamweb says:

        Think of it from the perspective of the ferry operator: what cheaper to operate? The ferry as-is, with people backing out/turning around on board, with guidance from crew members, or a massive investment in their fleet of ships, to equip them with some sort of lazy susan?

  9. My memory is a little hazy, but IIRC, the ferry “The Cat” that formerly operated* between Bar Harbor, Maine and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia only had a vehicle ramp on one end, and it had a semicircular turnaround lane at the other end. During loading, some of the cars would board, use the turnaround, then face backwards during transit, while the cars that boarded later would stay facing forwards and fill in the remaining lanes. During unloading, the cars facing backwards would exit, then the other cars facing forwards would drive through the turnaround and exit.

    * I’m specifically referring to the ship that operated between 2002–2005. The ship that currently operates between Portland, Maine and Yarmouth is a different one, though it looks quite similar. Interestingly, the FAQ for that one https://www.ferries.ca/thecat/faq/ mentions that RVs must board *and* exit backwards. I can’t think of why that would be necessary.

    (I might also be confusing this with the M/S Scotia Prince, a different ship that formerly operated between Portland and Yarmouth. Like I said, my memory is hazy.)

  10. jon says:

    Once cars have driven off at Friday Harbor, all remaining vehicles move forward as far as possible.
    Ferry backs out, turns around, and re-docks the other way.
    New cars drive in.

    1. Only a few cars get off at Friday Harbor. Your plan would require the entire ferry to get back in their cars just to let 20 cars off. And turning a ferry around and redocking takes a long time as well.

  11. Neil says:

    My solution was to divide the ferry vertically, so that all of the cars travelling the full distance park on one side and the cars going half-way park on the other side; they then leave forwards at the half-way point and the new cars drive on facing the other way; those new cars then leave forwards at the destination while the other cars can then use the space to turn around. However I see now the benefit of single lane approach, as long as you arrange for a diagonal border something like this (if the blog formatting doesn’t get in my way):

    [oo} [oo} [oo} [oo} [oo} [oo} [oo} [oo} [oo} 9 facing forwards
    [oo} [oo} [oo} [oo} {oo] {oo] {oo] {oo] {oo] 4 forwards 5 backwards
    [oo} [oo} [oo} {oo] {oo] {oo] {oo] {oo] {oo] 3 forwards 6 backwards
    [oo} [oo} {oo] {oo] {oo] {oo] {oo] {oo] {oo] 2 forwards 7 backwards

    After emptying the 18 facing forwards the 7 facing backwards U-turn in the available space and the other 11 cars can then follow them.

  12. Andy Carrein says:

    My first idea was to drive the cars that are in reverse out backwards.

    But then I remember that I sometimes have trouble driving my car backwards out of my 3 car garage…

Skip to main content