Standing guard on either side of the entrance to Grays Harbor, the cities of Ocean Shores and Westport are jewels of the Washington Coast. Offering incredible beach adventures, fishing trips, stores with salt water taffy and miles of coastal beauty to explore, the two towns should have a close relationship, sharing the tourist experience with throngs of visitors every year. Separated by less than two miles as the crow flies, traveling between Westport and Ocean Shores should be a quick excursion, but the drive is an hour long between the two seaside towns.
It wasn’t always this way and many longtime residents of both cities will recall the days when the two towns were much closer. From 1986 until 2008, a passenger ferry called the El Matador took passengers back and forth, helping create a bond between the two iconic towns and bringing neighbors together in Grays Harbor.
Every summer for 22 years, the El Matador helped visitors to the two towns travel back and forth, experiencing both coast communities. Starting in 1986, the Westport to Ocean Shores passenger ferry operated daily from mid-June until Labor Day, crossing Grays Harbor six times each day. The ferry also had a limited run on the weekends, starting in the shoulder seasons of April though June and again for the month of September. Celebrated by locals, the ferry bridged the two communities together, helping unify the north and south coast of the harbor.
Those who grew up in either town remember the passenger ferry fondly. For Ocean Shores residents and visitors, it was a way to experience the boardwalk of Westport with ease. Just a short walk from the ferry dock, visitors from Ocean Shores could go the museums, walk the beach, dine at restaurants and enjoy the timeless coastal wonders of the town.
For those coming from Westport, the trip to Ocean Shores allowed an escape to nature. During the heyday of the passenger ferry, the Ocean Shores Marina was a vibrant place, offering meals and trinkets. But the main draw was just a short walk from the docks – incredible views and experiences found walking, beach combing, surfing and kite flying at Damon Point. The ferry allowed residents to get to know their neighbor across the water and fully experience all of the Grays Harbor coast.
During the early months, the El Matador would cross the harbor during the peak Gray Whale migration months, turning the trip into a whale watching opportunity of a lifetime. During April and May, over 20,000 Gray Whales migrate north, swimming less than a mile offshore and often stopping off and exploring the harbor. The captain would slow the boat down for a few minutes, letting passengers smell the spray from the barnacled beasts and watch them swim and dive in the distance. For many, the ferry was their first trip on a boat and the first time they had seen a whale. For the families and kids of both towns, the $12 round trip ticket was a perfect way to spend a day, escaping to another town across the choppy waters.
For over two decades, the ferry run made the distance between Ocean Shores and Westport seem small, uniting two tourist towns. Sadly, the ferry service shut down in 2008, but not due to lack of popularity. While the ferry service had seen closures in previous years, the service would always pick back up and be celebrated by residents and visitors alike. Sadly, after too much sand and silt built up around the Ocean Shores marina, the El Matador was forced to cancel trips across the harbor. What was once a family-friendly boating experience and adventure across the harbor is now relegated to fond memories.
Today, the El Matador still continues to explore the harbor and the Pacific Coast, operating as a charter fishing vessel out of Westport. The family run charter business has been operating for forty years, bringing salmon fishing to generations of locals and visitors to Westport. While the boat may no longer be a passenger ferry, those hoping to experience the joys of boating can still walk the deck of the El Matador as it heads out on a chartered trip.
Every few years, a rumor swirls from the windswept dunes of Ocean Shores and Westport that a new ferry service may start up. While there are no plans for service currently, maybe sometime in the near future we can hop on a boat and cross the waters, passing whales and uniting the two sister cities once again.