PORT ORCHARD, Wash. – After a half century of piloting ferries across Sinclair Inlet, you’d think Willis “Bill” Nearhoff could do it with his eyes closed.
“I tried that. It didn’t work,” he said, sipping a cranberry drink at the Blue Goose Tavern.
At 1 p.m., the 75-year-old was already off work, having punched in for the 4:30 a.m. first crossing from Port Orchard to Bremerton. After making the 10-minute trip an estimated 600,000 times over the course of his career, he wouldn’t need much peeking.
“I told everybody, when I could smell bacon cooking at Myhre’s, I knew I was close to Port Orchard,” he said.
Back when Nearhoff started working, employment opportunities were scarce. Young guys could box groceries at TB&M, set pins at Hi-Joy or pump gas, if they were lucky.
“I was fortunate because I could work on boats,” he said.
He was the third Willis Nearhoff to own the ferry business, following his grandfather, who bought Horluck Transportation Co. in 1934, and father. Nearhoff was part owner with his aunt, Mary Lieseke, and cousin, Al Lieseke, for several years.
They sold the company to Hilton Smith in 1995 and Kitsap Transit purchased it from Smith in 2004. Nearhoff now works for Kitsap Harbor Tours, which operates the ferries for Kitsap Transit.
“He’s just been an absolute wonderful employee, said Kitsap Harbor Tours business manager Rick Leenstra Jr. “He’s always very reliable. He does his job without any complaining. He’s one of the best boat-handling guys we’ve got.”
Nearhoff started out scraping paint at age 13. He worked as a deckhand on the Carlisle II before and after school at South Kitsap High. At the time, the former Mosquito Fleet boat connected Bainbridge’s Point White, South Kitsap’s Waterman and Bremerton. He earned his captain’s license at 21 and has been driving the Port Orchard ferries ever since, minus a two-year escape to California.
Nearhoff watched from his captain’s seat as the cities gradually changed over five decades. The Bremerton shoreline today is unrecognizable from the scene created by the old YMCA, ferry dock and Wheelhouse Tavern, all now just memories.
“Buildings come and go,” said Nearhoff, a small man wearing neatly trimmed silvery hair and mustache. “I’ve seen it all from the water. It keeps changing.”
Nearhoff steered the Admiral Pete straight in to the Bremerton dock Thursday morning, stopping softly against the tire bumpers. Dozens of riders scurried off. A couple of handfuls boarded. The skipper slowly backed the stern south around some dolphins, snaked it to the north and thrust the boat into forward. Engines whirred as it climbed to 10 knots. Minutes later, it was snugging a Port Orchard Marina float.
The ride was straight and smooth.
“He’s the best of the best and the funniest, too,” deckhand Taylor Close said.
Most trips are uneventful, but not all. Fog and wind can present challenges. Only four or five times can Nearhoff remember canceling a run because of weather. One was Oct. 12, 1962, the Columbus Day storm. When Nearhoff landed at the Bremerton dock, about 10 people were waiting. None would get onboard. He left alone for Port Orchard.
“My mother (Ruth) was standing there,” he said. “She said, ‘Shut it down.’ ”
Nearhoff said he’s never been scared on Sinclair Inlet, but that storm “got my attention.” He has a special relationship with the Carlisle II, which his grandfather bought in 1931 and he’s been working with since the early 1950s.
“The Carlisle’s my favorite,” he said. “It’s been with me my whole life.”
It’s not the easiest boat to maneuver, however. It’s like a kite in the wind and has just one propeller.
Kitsap Transit executive director John Clauson rode with Nearhoff when he drove it to Port Townsend, where it gets annual maintenance. In a windstorm, with only a few feet of clearance, he parked it between two boats.
“I was dumbfounded to watch,” Clauson said. “It was nerve-wracking, but he did it with absolutely no problem at all.”
There’s nothing romantic to Nearhoff about salt air, sea breeze and working on the water.
“My grandfather did it, my folks did it and I did it. It’s a living,” he said.
Nearhoff enjoys cars, and keeps five classics at his Manchester home. He drives a bright red convertible 2012 Mustang, and is in the process of trading it in for a ruby red 2015 model. He also owns a 2007 Shelby and 1966 Mustang. But no boats.
“I don’t want to own a boat,” he said. “I hate boats. Boats are weird.”
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