SEATTLE – There is one “must do” for Seattle tourists. The memory almost everyone takes away from the Pacific Northwest is a ferry ride across the wide open waters of Puget Sound. In the days and years before Sept. 11, 2001, that excursion even had its own soundtrack.
Folk musicians and classical quartets performed on board the large boats, playing or busking for tips. Some spent so much time on board they adapted their repertoire to fit the setting, with a preponderance of sea shanties and meandering tales about ship wrecks and pirates.
Today the ferries are mostly quiet, except for the laughter of children, the click of camera shutters and the thrum of the large engines. The day of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was the beginning of the end of buskers on the ferries, and recent attempts to bring the musicians back have been stymied by new security rules instituted since that day.
Most musicians stopped playing on the ferries after the terrorist attacks when new rules required everyone to leave the boats and take all their belongings with them each time the ferry stopped at a port, or about once every 35 minutes on average.
Musician Tania Opland started playing on weekend ferry runs between Seattle and Bainbridge Island in the mid-1980s, while taking a break from college. She remembers that being a simpler time, before laptop computers and smartphones, when people had nothing better to do on the ferry than enjoy the view.
“The music was a real nice diversion that filled up that empty half an hour,” said Opland, who has homes on Bainbridge Island and in Ireland, where her husband was born.
Now the multi-instrumentalist, who performs folk music around the world but never on the ferries, says everyone brings all their “busyness” with them.
That was evident on a recent sunny afternoon, when at least a third of the people had their eyes glued to a cellphone or computer screen instead of the view.
Years ago, Opland said, music on the ferries was an essential part of the Seattle experience. Some people even checked with her before bringing their out-of-town visitors on a ferry ride to make sure they got on a boat with music, she said.
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