Story By Nancy Covert, Photos By Dave Sclair
Move over Mr. Orr.
There’s another South Sound island resident who just might challenge Nathaniel Orr’s legendary mainland-to-Anderson-Island (to Oro Bay in the mid- 1850s) transit. While Orr relied on a sturdy rowboat with paddles to make the crossing, 15-year Ketron Islander Bob Barrett relies on a chain-driven pedal-boat (with pedals that drive the chain to turn the propeller, and handlebars to complete the bicycle resemblance) to make his daily round trip between Steilacoom and home.
The one-way trip, Barrett says, “takes an average of 25-30 minutes,” depending on the wind, water and the tide; all the variables. When it’s foggy, the crossing can take “almost an hour.”
Barrett, a trainer for Pierce Transit, began this striking style of commuting in June 2001‚Ä¶ back when the Pierce County passenger ferry fare was about $3 round trip; it’s now about $5.
At a long-ago Tacoma Boat Show he encountered a Lake Sammamish boat dealer who convinced him that the pedal boat was just what he needed.
“It came with a lifetime guarantee on the engine,” Barrett said. That guarantee was what sold him on the buy, he continued. After he got home and unpacked his $1,500 investment from its box, he tore through the boat’s wrappings, unsuccessfully searching for this lifetime engine. That’s when he realized he’d been “had!”
The engine, he laughed, was his own sturdy heart.
Something of a local celebrity because of this energy-efficient mode of transportation, Barrett recently drew media attention when KING-5 TV interviewed him and filmed him on the water. Other than that, he keeps pretty low key. Area residents who’ve seen him making the water-borne transit “refer to me as the crazy guy.”
Nothing crazy about it, he maintains. The pedal boat is “extremely efficient” and very low maintenance. A few new chains and an occasional squirt of oil are the only upkeep it needs. Barrett says his leg muscle-powered bicycle is very seaworthy. He’s never “gone overboard” either.
Of course, there have been times when the Sound is particularly choppy, but it’s not deterred him from making his daily trip to the mainland. He does admit, though, that when he heads off his wife, Kathy, does check to make sure his insurance policy is current.
This native Washingtonian (originally from Bremerton) enjoys walking‚Äîabout 3-5 miles a day. Walking, he explains, is a great way to do some thinking.
Barrett, just shy of age 65, is bewildered by how many people “discount their own ability to move themselves.” He’s convinced that the bicycle is the most efficient machine for doing just that.
Before investing for what he regarded as “just a toy” he promised himself to ride it at least until he’d recouped its price in unspent ferry fares. It’s been such a “good investment” he says via phone from his island home, that he’s considering purchasing a second pedal boat. He plans to connect the two bike/boats so he and Kathy can ride tandem. She often accompanies her husband on his water bike trips, but usually she doesn’t contribute any sweat equity to the crossing. Once the two bike/boats are connected, though, he’ll have another “lifetime guaranteed” engine.
As if his daily pedal boat ride weren’t excitement enough, Barrett says that he and a buddy are making plans to hike “500 miles from Idaho to the Washington Coast” this summer via old railroad trails (Milwaukee Road, NP, GN, etc.) He plans to document the trip with his digital camera. He’s also considering creating a web page so people who are interested in his summer trek can follow along.
For those who haven’t seen this unique, economical form of transportation, Bob says he usually leaves the Pierce County ferry dock in Steilacoom around 3:30-4 pm most weekday afternoons.