Capt. Paul Bellesen Jr. stands Tuesday near the Washington State Ferries dock in Port Townsend. He spent nearly 30 years in the agency, most recently as the captain of the Salish, which sails between Port Townsend and Coupeville on Whidbey Island. (Zach Jablonski /Peninsula Daily News)

Capt. Paul Bellesen Jr. stands Tuesday near the Washington State Ferries dock in Port Townsend. He spent nearly 30 years in the agency, most recently as the captain of the Salish, which sails between Port Townsend and Coupeville on Whidbey Island. (Zach Jablonski /Peninsula Daily News)

Ferry captain makes his farewells

After a ‘great career,’ he’s ready to do something different

PORT TOWNSEND — Capt. Paul Bellesen Jr., who most recently plied the tumultuous ferry route between Port Townsend and Coupeville on Whidbey Island, has retired after almost 30 years in the state ferries system.

“It can get down right nasty up there,” Bellesen said of the route across Admiralty Inlet. “There’s a couple times I was scared sh-tless, to say the least, but you just kept going.”

The weather on the Port Townsend route posed big challenges. Tuesday was a good example.

High winds and rough seas led to the cancellation of most of the morning sailings.

Many days, afternoon sailings also were canceled on the route.

“You don’t want to let people know that you’re scared,” Bellesen said, “but there are a couple times where we said, ‘We really shouldn’t be out here.’ The seas were always there. You had to work with what was given you.

“It might be flat calm, or it can be rough as all get out, and you’d have to deal with it. You’d never know what the waters would bring you.”

Bellesen, 63, retired on Sept. 30. He started with Washington State Ferries in 1992 as an Ordinary Seaman. He earned his Master’s license in 1999 and worked his way through the ranks until he was promoted to Master Seaman and then to Captain in 2006.

While spending most of his time on the Port Townsend-Coupeville route, the Poulsbo resident also worked watches on the Bainbridge Island-Seattle and Edmonds-Kingston ferries, he said.

Bellesen began learning seamanship when he was about 8 or 9 years old through a youth program his father started, called North by Northwest Adventures, which taught underprivileged kids seamanship.

“My dad just said anybody could join, and we had all races,” Bellesen said. “I’ve been raised on seas for a considerable time.

“So, as far as boating, I’ve been doing it for a long time.”

The program ended in 1973. The state wanted to acquire the program, and Bellesen’s father didn’t want to operate under it, he said.

Bellesen was born in Nampa, Idaho. His family moved first to Fall City and then to Seattle when he was 6. He’s lived in the Puget Sound area ever since.

The first ferry Bellesen captained was the Steilacoom II, when it operated on the Port Townsend run. He went to captain the Chetzemoka, the Salish and then the Kennewick, and finally retired back on the Salish, he said.

Bellesen couldn’t point to just one part of working on ferries that he enjoyed.

“I just liked it,” he said. “I really did like coming to work.

“I just loved the whole aspect of it.”

The COVID-19 pandemic played a factor in Bellesen’s decision to retire; he said he was concerned about contracting the virus. But his primary reason is to spend more time with his wife and his other family members and friends.

“It’s getting time; I’ve spent enough time on the water,” he said. “I like the water, but there are some other things I would like to do.

“I just want to retire and do something different before it’s too late. I just want to get out and enjoy life.”

On an average day, Bellesen would spend a little bit of time doing housework in the morning. By noon, he was on his way to Port Townsend. His watch started at 2 p.m.

Bellesen’s life over the last almost 30 years was split in two: life at home with his wife and then his time aboard the vessels.

“You get a life at home, and then you get to work and you have another life you have to take care of,” Bellesen said. “It’s been a really good crew. At home — along with my wife — everything is good, and then I would have to change over, deal with the crew, and it’s all been good.

“It’s been a great career, and I love it, and I wouldn’t change anything. Now is the final goodbye and I’ll go enjoy life.”


Jefferson County reporter Zach Jablonski can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 5, or at [email protected]

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