With the San Juan Islands just beyond Bellingham Bay, Bill McGown believes Whatcom County residents who haven’t made a trip to see their island neighbors to the west are missing chances at both business and leisure.
“I’m always surprised when I meet locals who have never been to the San Juan Islands,” said McGown, owner and operator of Leap Frog Water Taxi. “I’m just like, ‘Are you crazy?’”
McGown, who lives in Bellingham but owns a cabin on Lopez Island, started the small ferry company in fall 2011 after realizing island residents wanted a direct route to Whatcom County that would let them bypass a ferry trip south to Anacortes. But as he’s tried to fill this practical need, he’s found a greater motivation: bridging a new connection between Whatcom and the San Juans.
Leap Frog carries passengers to a variety of destinations in the islands, a number of which not accessible by other modes of transportation such as the Washington state ferry system.
One-way fares for the water taxi, which is based out of the Bellingham Cruise Terminal, vary from $23 to $85 based on a trip’s length, according to the company’s website. McGown also offers a 10-ride punch card to frequent passengers that can save them 15 percent on fares.
Taking the leap
On a rainy Friday morning at the floating dock outside the Bellingham terminal, McGown waits as his 32-foot aluminum boat named “Andiamo” – Italian for “let’s go” – idles in the water.
As the four passengers on this morning’s run begin to arrive, McGown takes their bags and other gear, then sets off from the harbor.
Stephen Koch from the San Francisco Bay area and Jenny Light from Redmond, Wash., are headed to a vacation cabin on Blakley, an island south of Orcas Island. Light said she had traveled on Leap Frop before and found McGown’s straight shot to the San Juans more convenient than other options.
“It’s been great so far,” Light said. “[Leap Frog] works because it’s easier.”
McGown said vacationers and adventurers make up a portion of his passenger base. But his main traffic has come from people living on the islands, as well as travelers making the final legs of their trips to the San Juans after arriving at the Bellingham International Airport or at the Amtrak and Greyhound stops in Fairhaven Station.
In addition to Leap Frog, other companies, including Paraclete Charter Service of Anacortes and San Juan Islands Water Taxi of Friday Harbor, run similar ferry services—although McGown is the only operator currently based in Bellingham.
Barbara Marrett, communications manager with the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, said water taxis are particularly useful to people traveling to the islands by plane or train.
“They just allow a kind of flexibility that you don’t have when you rely on the [state] ferry,” Marrett said. “It’s a way for them to get here without renting a car and taking the ferry – it’s very direct.”
About half an hour into the Friday morning trip, McGown reaches over from behind the boat’s wheel and slides opens a side window, allowing a roaring breeze to come off the water and into the cabin. The interior of the Leap Frog craft has booths and tables running along either side. It could comfortably seat about a half-dozen people or so, though the boat itself – with additional open-air seating in the rear – is licensed to carry up to 12 passengers.
While McGown drives, he tracks weather changes on his iPhone, takes calls for future pick-ups, tweets and checks his email. As a one-man operation spending most days on the water, McGown has to play receptionist as much as pilot – essentially turning his boat into a floating command center.
Along choppy water, Leap Frog approaches the morning’s first stop at Sinclair Island. McGown is dropping off two passengers: a man and a woman carrying suitcases, water and a Styrofoam cooler.
On this side of Sinclair, a small island east of the San Juans, there’s no dock. Instead, McGown is dropping the pair inside a small boat tied to a buoy a few hundred feet offshore. From there, they will wait for a friend to row out and meet them.
Leap Frog makes drop-offs in a variety of locations. The boat can run right up on a beach, McGown said, provided the shoreline is not too steep and no large rocks or other obstructions are in the area. This aspect has come in handy when McGown makes runs for kayak groups or custom trips for people hauling heavy cargo such as building or landscaping materials.
After seeing his Sinclair passengers off, McGown carefully turns his boat around and heads toward Blakley Island. According to his instruments, the water underneath the vessel at the drop-off point was just five feet deep.
“It verges on the sketchy side,” he said. “This is probably one of the funkier places to land.”
The stop at Blakley is easier, with a small empty dock giving McGown plenty of space to pull in. The entire trip took a little over an hour.
Tuning the Leap Frog model
Leap Frog is designed to run year-round, but McGown said he plans take some time off in December and January. After his first full year, the water taxi’s business model will likely need some retooling, he said.
Yet while McGown admits he’s been “barely” profitable so far with high overhead and maintenance costs—he spent more than $12,000 on fuel alone during the first seven months of 2012—he doesn’t plan major changes.
“I think the way we came out of the starting blocks has worked well,” he said. “This is year one, and I knew I had to brace myself and prepare to spend this year working super hard and see how it washed out.”
With the total ridership he has available, McGown is optimistic his company can grow, particularly since island residents have embraced him and lent support.
“Having customers with that attitude – that’s value right there,” he said.
Evan Marczynski Photos/Courtesy photo from Bill McGown