Door County Magazine
When you grow up on an island, chances are pretty good you move away after high school, go to college, see the world. But somehow—as life often goes—you realize you can go home again…and want to.
That’s been the experience for many Washington Island natives—and never more so than those who have returned to the tippy top of the peninsula to drive the Washington Island Ferry from the mainland to the island, and back.
Hoyt Purinton, 44, is president of the Washington Island Ferry Line—the fourth-generation captain was born and raised on the island and often made trips as a deckhand with his father, Richard, and grandfather Arni (Hoyt’s grandfather and great-grandfather bought the line in 1940).
And while his career choices were not pushed upon him—he did leave the island to attend college—Purinton decided to return to pursue the family’s, and his, passion.
“We’re very fortunately living on an island,” he says. “Most or all of our crew have a lot of private boating experience. But we’re now a couple generations removed from when most of the families were professional fishermen or merchant mariners.
“All of our crew are Islanders; they know the island intimately. That makes us unique.”
The 30-minute trip to and from Washington Island, by ferry, is only about 4.5 miles. And it might seem like all the drivers do is go back and forth all day—at least that’s what some passengers believe. But the ferry drivers know better.
“It’s never the same thing,” says longtime captain Joel Gunnlaugsson, an island native who became full-time with the ferry line in 2001. “There are different weather conditions, different crews…we operate year-round. We still come to work in the dead of winter…shovel the snow, get the boats ready,” he adds.
Gunnlaugsson, 41, is a father of four who lives on the island and, with his wife, Krista, also owns the small Townliner Motel. While he started with the line while in high school in the 90s, he left to pursue a degree in electronics, worked for a paper converting company while in college and later worked in the Gulf Coast on supply vessels.
With his electronics skills and having already earned his captain’s license, Gunnlaugsson returned north, to join Washington Island Ferry Line, enjoying the life on the water but especially the social part of the job. “I’m a people person,” he says. “My favorite part is talking to the public and trying to sell the community to them.”
The life of a ferry driver—at least in Door County’s busy summers—can be hectic, often working 60 to 70 hours a week from Memorial Day through Columbus Day; most shifts in summer, Gunnlaugsson says, can run 11 to 13 hours per day.
Summer means between 20 and 30 trips per day, back and forth—only two daily in January through March.
“There’s always something going on,” says Purinton, even if a captain isn’t scheduled for a shift on a given day. Captains also keep track of passengers and freight, check the safety of the boat, maintain inventory (such as life jackets) and monitor weather, among other tasks.
A day in the life of a ferry captain is never the same. That’s why Captain Dave Heath enjoys it.
“Every day is different, every trip might be different depending on your load and weather conditions,” says Heath, who at 27 is one of the fleet’s youngest drivers. And he’s one of the few non-Island natives.
Heath was raised in Indiana but spent summers in Door County and on Washington Island. “I spent a lot of time on the water growing up, fishing…it kind of came naturally,” he says.
He started working as a deckhand—parking cars, collecting tickets, tying up boats—and later decided he’d like to drive, so he took classes to earn his license and became a captain in 2016.
Heath drives both car ferries as well as the Karfi—the passenger ferry from Washington Island to Rock Island—and feels he is now planting his roots on the island where he says, “It’s a different pace.”
Transporting passengers and cargo safely across Death’s Door is no small feat—and the ferry drivers take it seriously. “Water is not a survivable human environment,” says Purinton. “You never want to get cavalier or think you’re infallible. That is something that is instilled in each our operators.
“The challenges are real, not imagined, and there’s a great sense of accomplishment.”