The View From The Fremont Drawbridge Tower – The Bridge Operators Perspective

View from the Bridge Tender Tower on the Fremont Bridge as the Duck Dodge herd head toward the first evening opening

View from the Bridge Operator Tower on the Fremont Bridge as the Duck Dodge herd head toward the first evening opening

Recently I had a chance to visit the Bridge Operator Tower on the Fremont Bridge and talk with some operators about the challenges they face daily balancing the needs of vehicles, pedestrians, bicyclists and vessels (both recreational and commercial).  I was also able to observe the Fremont Bridge in operation and see first hand some of the many daily challenges faced by the Bridge Operators.

The Fremont Bridge is almost 100 years old having opened on June 17, 1917.  The Fremont Bridge is one of five bridges between the entrance to Shilshole Bay and Lake Washington.  It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and is a Seattle city Landmark.

With a low clearance of 30 feet the Fremont Bridge opens on average 35 times a day making it one of the busiest bridges of it’s type in the world according to the Seattle DOT.  Bridge openings however are restricted during peak commute times to reduce the impact to vehicle traffic.  More information on the Fremont Bridge from Wikipedia or the Seattle Department of Transportation.

Fremont Bridge electrical control panel

Fremont Bridge electrical control panel

The control panel for the bridge is fairly simple with the Bridge Operator performing each individual operation in sequence with no fancy one touch automation.  This struck me as quite odd in today’s era of autopilots that can take off and land jet aircraft in zero zero visibility until I saw all the safety checks the operators do with each operation. Lower the pedestrian gate first then check to make sure that all the pedestrians and bike riders have cleared the bridge.  The vehicle barrier can’t be lowered on the Fremont Bridge if pedestrians are close to the the counter-weight for the barrier as the counterweight sticks into the sidewalk area, so the Bridge Operator needs to double check to make sure that no one has gotten past the pedestrian barrier.  Don’t want to drop the vehicle barrier on top of a vehicle either.

The small toy orange traffic cone?  The panel and intrusion alarms are quite loud if you are in the control room, so the cone muffles the alarm a bit, if the operator goes down a level to the old control area where the refrigerator and other amenities of home are, they remove the cone so they can hear the alarm down a level in the tower as well as take a hand held VHF with them.

A few issues I noted on my visit to to the Fremont Bridge:

  • Boats not signaling intent, the Fremont Bridge has several marinas on it’s east side and it can be difficult for the Bridge Operator to know the intent of a boat, also some boats just drive down to the bridge and turn around an go back into Lake Union, presumably they are taking pictures or giving friends a tour.  The Ballard Bridge also has marinas and boat yards on each side of it as well as Fisherman’s Terminal that make it hard to anticipate what a vessel might do.
  • The proper sound signals for the bridges on the Ship Canal is a Prolonged and a Short sound signal, the bridge should reply with a Prolonged and a Short if they will be opening soon, or Five Short if the vessel will need to wait.  If the bridge does not respond after a reasonable time, try the horn signal again or they can be contacted on VHF Ch 13, please be polite.  Note, the Seattle DOT prefers that recreational boaters use sound signals when possible.
  • If a vessel receives the five short indicating that the opening will be delayed and you decide to do a “race track” oval where the drivers back is to the bridge, please look over your shoulder to look for and listen for the traffic barricade lights sounds to make sure you do not miss the opening.
  • Erratic, no sound signals or very quiet sound signals make it very difficult for the Bridge Operator to understand the intent or needs of a vessel.  See: Proper Bridge Opening Signals and Conch Shell Horns for more information on bridge sound signals.
  • Pedestrians, runners and bikes go through or around the stop signals, some will run to get around the stop signals then slow to a leisurely walk the rest of the way across, take selfies with their friends on the bridge etc. and thus slowing down the opening for everyone.  Also jumping around the barrier can put you into the roadway where you could be struck by a vehicle.
  • Automobiles, lights and barriers.  The barriers to stop vehicles work similar  to a railroad crossing, except that the Railroad Crossings are automated and sometimes drop the barrier on the top of a car, the bridge barriers are manual and the Bridge Operator visually checks to help prevent a barrier from being lowered onto a vehicle.  When the red lights and bells start, the proper form is to safely stop before the barrier and wait, if you are under or past the barrier then continue on like you do at a Railroad Grade Crossing onto the far side of the bridge.  Romping all the way down on the accelerator to speed up to try and beat the barrier or swerving around the barrier is not safe and can cause an accident or someone could be injured.
Sorry sir, per the CFR's the Fremont Bridge will not open for a sailboat that is not using auxiliary power

Sorry sir, per the CFR’s the Fremont Bridge will not open for a sailboat that is not using auxiliary power

Sailboats using sail only (no auxiliary power):  The CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) that covers bridge openings specifically prohibits bridge opening for sail only.  Title 33: Navigaion and Navigable Waters, Part 117: Drawbridge Operation Regulations, Subpart B: Specific Requirements § 117.1051 Lake Washington Ship Canal.

(b)  All non-self-propelled vessels, craft, or rafts navigating this waterway for which the opening of any draw is necessary shall be towed by a suitable self-propelled vessel while passing the draw.

Please don’t make it difficult for the bridge Operator’s by requesting an opening while sailing.  In addition to not being legal, the winds around the bridges and in the cuts can make it difficult for a boat to sail safely.

The Bridge Operators check an AIS display showing vessels in the immediate area, listen on VHF Ch 13 as well as visually survey the approaches (including using binoculars) to try and anticipate the vessel traffic, for both recreational and commercial vessels.  Commercial vessels because of their size, the narrow areas around the bridges and difficulty in maneuvering can be a special challenge.  Commercial vessels generally call the Bridge Operator early with an estimated time in route to the bridge to help the Bridge Operator schedule an opening to minimize the time the bridge is up and insure the safety of the vessel and the surrounding area.

All the Bridge Operators try and minimize the impact of the openings on vehicle traffic and allow traffic to clear before opening the bridge again.  The standard minimum time is usually 10 minutes after a bridge is reopened to vehicle traffic before the bridge is opened again for vessels.  They also try and limit an opening to no more than 10 minutes to reduce impact to vehicle traffic.

Recreational boaters, you can also help, look ahead and behind you, if you are first in a long line of sailboats (or other boats that require a bridge opening), consider slowing down to let the other vessels catch up with you so that all of you can go through in a single opening.  If you are last in line, consider speeding up a bit to close with the vessels ahead of you.  However please keep in mind the speed limits and wake limits, you do not want to cause damage to other vessels or homes with your wake nor get in trouble with the Seattle Harbor Patrol.  (Please see:  Avoiding the Seattle Harbor Patrol’s Attention )

Make sure you have a loud horn on board your vessel, look for the U.S. Coast Guard approval for vessels under 20 meters in length (if you are under 20 meters in length), have a nominal range of at least 1/2 mile in good weather conditions and still wind.  Also keep a spare horn or canister for the horn if it is a hand held horn.  If you have a fixed horn on your boat, consider having a spare hand held horn just in case the regular horn does not work.  You are required to have a proper horn on your boat to meet U.S. Coast Guard regulations, it is a safety issue, a horn can be used to signal danger to other vessels and well as other safety and maneuvering signals.

Many sailboats start through the bridge before it is fully open by going through at the center span when the opening is just a bit wider than the beam of the sailboat, this helps to shorten the opening time and reduce the impact to vehicle traffic.  If you are an oncoming vessel and see a sailboat doing this, please give the sailboat maneuvering room.  Some sailboats can get through at mid-span and not need a bridge opening, if you see a vessel doing this, please give them maneuvering room to let them pass under the bridge safely before you go under the bridge.  A vessel that is using a tight mid-span crossing to save a bridge opening is severely limited in their ability to maneuver while they are under the bridge span, a bit of courtesy goes a long ways here.

Know the Air Draft (height of the mast AND ANYTHING MOUNTED ON THE TOP OF THE MAST) of your vessel.  Some owners have a small engraved sign mounted where it can be seen by the helm with the height and max draft engraved on it.  Some skippers have torn the instruments off the top of the mast when they forgot the height of the mast above the water PLUS the instruments and antennas.

Another sea story: Last week the Fremont Bridge Operator received a proper horn signal from a properly lighted sailboat eastbound about 10:30 pm, the opening was  completed without incident and the sailboat went on eastbound.  The Bridge Operator then received a phone call from the Call Out Operator who had came to work early (after 11:00 pm there is a single operator for all the Seattle DOT bridges on the Ship Canal and vessels need to call on the phone and schedule a time for an opening).  The Call Out Operator had received a cell phone  call from an east bound sailboat with no lights, no radio, no horn and needed a bridge opening.  The Fremont Bridge Operator then looked very hard to the west and saw a very faint flashlight, binoculars were also used to help to just make out a sailboat and mast, the bridge was opened and the sailboat proceeded safely past the bridge.

Please help the Bridge Operators by having the proper lights on your vessel.  A bright flashlight can be swept on the water to help others see your vessel.  See: Flashlights For The Boat for some thoughts and tests I did a while ago on flashlights I use for my boat.  An important note about flashlights (and any light) – do not shine it into the wheelhouse or the eyes of the person driving another vessel or the windows of the bridge towers, you will destroy their night vision for some time which is a real safety issue for all involved.

UPDATE June 23, 2016: I received a question sent to my site from Brooks Townes about the policy in the early 1980’s where a Bridge Operator would only open the bridge a small amount and the sailboats were expected to go through a very narrow sliver of an opening.  Brooks started and led the effort to make the bridge Operators aware of the dangers a short lift posed to sailboats, in the end no more short lifts and he was wondering if the no short lift policy was still in place.  Yes the no short lift policy is still in effect, thanks Brooks for your effort.

I received the following response from a Bridge Operator and the Bridge Supervisor

The policy is for the Bridge Operator to open to a full open or until the boat (boats) has completely cleared. There will be a minimum opening of 30 degrees even if the boat (boats) has already cleared at a lesser degree. Under no circumstances will the bridge opening be stopped before all boats are completely clear and under no circumstances will an opening for vessels be less than 30 degrees.


I remember the incident Brooks Townes is referring to. And yes because of his efforts it is now our policy to make 30 degree minimum openings, and the bridge is to continue up until all vessels have cleared, or the bridge has reached a full opening. The full opening differs in degrees depending on which bridge, but in general it’s around 70 degrees.

The interesting thing we found was when the bridge continued moving upward, the boaters actually transited through the bridge faster, and therefore did not add more time to the bridge opening.

This is so great, I love this forum for the boaters and operators.

So today the Bridge Group is opting for very safe passage of all vessels and there is no need to worry about a short lift.

Thanks Brooks for the question and Seattle DOT for the answer and a policy that respects the safety of sailboats.

Thanks for your interest in and support of boating safety

Photo Credits, Sailboat under sail at the Fremont Bridge, Fremont Bridge Operator.

Thanks also to the Bridge Operators for their help with this article.

 – c / m –

This entry was posted in Boating Safety, Safety Thoughts, seattle and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The View From The Fremont Drawbridge Tower – The Bridge Operators Perspective

  1. Thank you CaptnMike for this great article and also the link to Dave Chappell for other additional questions..

  2. Great article! I’ve been over and under this bridge for many years, and never knew what it looked like inside. Nice to know what exactly is required for a bridge opening. I’ve heard many different things over the years and never knew precisely what was best. I have to say, bridge operators close to my heart for they have a tough job to do and they are the gateway to my berthing after a long sail. Especially thankful for the late night openings. I wish I could by them a beer or pizza for those openings. 🙂

  3. andy says:

    Great details! Very comprehensive. Missed one detail… The red/green light to the left of the Freemont bridge heading west, (there at all the bridges). If red it indicates a canal wide transit is occurring. A very large vessel is transiting the canal and needs the full width, not a good time to go.

    • captnmike says:

      Very good point – thanks – the matching signal at the west end is on the West Side of the Ballard Bridge on the south bridge support.

      Also many times I have heard vessels announce on the VHF they were transiting the Ship Canal or Montlake Cut and had size or maneuvering restrictions. If you listen to VHF Ch 13 & 16 you should be notified of large vessel traffic or size issues. Rule of thumb – if a vessel is calling ahead for an opening they are a large vessel and you should be extra careful around them

      Thanks for stopping by

  4. ronp says:

    Neat article and photos! Thanks!

  5. Kenneth Ashe says:

    Great pictures. That little dingy towing the sailboat is great.

  6. Dave says:

    Thank you to all boat operators that look like pros by knowing your overall height, lowering antennas and outriggers if lowerable and observing clearance gauges to safely pass under drawbridges without an opening if you can safely do so. Never cut it close though, Bridge Operators will always give you an opening if you are unsure. Just ask.

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