Seeing Seattle Through a Local's Eyes
5 Lessons You Can Learn from Joel Michelson
As Chief Mate of the Washington State Ferry System, the nation’s largest, Joel Michelson oversees the safe transport of more than 20 million passengers a year. He’s on board early every morning to make the first crossing and watch the spectacular sunrise over Seattle. You could say his line of work runs in his –blood – both his father and grandfather were also ferry boat captains.
Here are five key lessons you can learn from the life and career of this third-generation Local Legend.
In addition to carrying on a family legacy, Michelson is himself a father of two young children who adore going to work with their dad. “It is a pretty cool job,” he says. “It's probably like having a dad who’s a firefighter, a police officer or an airline pilot. It's a big ship, and being able to be in the wheelhouse and act like you're driving it is pretty awesome for kids.” Sounds like a fourth generation of ferry boat captains is already in the making.
After spending 14 years working on ferry boats, Michelson has become somewhat of an expert on the best ways to pass the time. While he’s at work navigating, his passengers get to relax -- and some of them like to really unwind. “I see people doing Tai Chi and yoga,” he says. “Most people read, or they're on their computers.” And just like commuters who take the bus or the train, ferry riders are creatures of habit. “After sometimes 20 years of commuting with the same people, they get to know each other. Going to work is their morning hangout with their buddies. They sit with the same people, in the same spots, every day.”
Michelson is up and at ‘em every morning at 3:30 a.m. and on the ship by 4:30 a.m., a schedule most people might find punishing. He often goes to bed much earlier than even his 6- and 3-year olds. For this dad, though, adjusting his internal clock has actually been pretty ideal for finding balance between both of his “crews.”
“The benefit of my schedule is that it is really conducive for family. I'm off at two in the afternoon, so I can help coach my kids’ soccer and baseball teams, and it doesn't affect work. That's the biggest benefit for me,” Michelson says.
Although most days at work are smooth sailing, Michelson has seen his fair share of emergencies and has had to jump into action to perform CPR on multiple occasions. During his 14-year tenure, he’s done the unimaginable – he’s saved five lives. “When you're able to help people in a time of need like that, it really brings an incredible amount of pride and satisfaction. It’s not something we do very often, so when it does happen, the crew just seems to come together as a team to make things work,” he says.
Even though Michelson always knew he wanted to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, he didn’t chart the straightest course to the profession. “I went to Western Washington University and got a degree in art and art history,” he says. Surprisingly, his story isn’t that different from many of his coworkers. “The backgrounds of people who work the ferries are really diverse,” he explains. “We have art majors, like me. We have teachers. We have people who are pretty much from all walks of life, and it’s interesting to get to know people’s crazy backgrounds and how they became ferry boaters.” Michelson is quick to mention why he thinks so many kinds of people are drawn to the job, too. “The scenery is impossible to beat. It's just beautiful scenery.”
Where does Joel Michelson think Seattle is headed? Find out on the Local Legends podcast, available on iTunes and Google Play.