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Sail through history of the Mosquito Fleet

Bob Ulsh remembers fondly the days of the Mosquito Fleet — although in their heyday, the vessels were referred to as just “the boats.”

“My father worked on one called the Arcadia, and I never heard my dad use that term — he just said ‘the boats,’” Ulsh recalled, explaining also that the term “Mosquito Fleet” did not originate in the Puget Sound, but was a description first used in Europe, which had its own fleet of boats that delivered people, goods and mail to different points along its coastline. “However, we did have the world’s largest Mosquito Fleet.”

These tidbits and many more are what Ulsh will be sharing Sunday as he narrates the third annual “Mosquito Fleet Historical Cruise,” sponsored by the Puget Sound Genealogical Society.

This year, the cruise will take the “southern route” of Kitsap County whistle stops, which explores Gorst, the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Rich Passage, Fort Ward and South Colby.

“Some of the old docks are not even visible anymore, they’re so rotted away, but I remember where they were,” Ulsh said, recalling that the fleet — when he rode it regularly as a child in the late 1930s and early 40s — was not just an efficient way to travel and deliver items when both roads and vehicles were not necessarily reliable, but a thriving community in and of itself.

“It was a nice way to travel and a nice way to meet people,” he said, explaining that he frequently rode with his mother on his father’s route that traveled from their small community of Lakebay, to the “big city” — Tacoma. “To us, that was town — we’d go to the dentist, and then my mother would take us to the movies as a reward after our appointment.”

On those regular trips, Ulsh said he and his family would get to know dozens of people they otherwise would never meet, such as those who either lived far away or were from different walks of life.

“There were lots of characters that rode those boats — ranchers, loggers, sophisticated types and unsophisticated types,” he recalled, adding that the boats were separated into men’s and women’s areas, and, not surprisingly, the more interesting place to be was the men’s cabin.

“They told ribald stories, smoked and played cards, while the ladies sat back in their compartment with the children and crocheted,” he said, admitting that he and the other children were often trying to sneak into the men’s cabin. “But we never lasted more than a minute before they caught us.”

Started in 1853, the Mosquito Fleet began to fade once road improvements like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge were built, and Ulsh laments that knowledge of the once-robust service that people depended on for transportation and delivery of everything from chicken feed to cows is fading fast.

“It’s a history that’s kind of been lost; it’s too bad, but sometimes we tend to not appreciate history until we’re almost history ourselves,” he said, adding that he was pleased to find that the groups so far on the cruises have been “very receptive” to his stories and knowledge about the area.

Sunday’s cruise begins at 11 a.m., with boarding at 10:30 a.m. Seats are still available, and for more information or to make reservations, call 876-4320.

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