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Saturday, September 23, 2023
Sept. 23, 2023

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As Washington State Ferries cancellations, delays continue, here’s what to know


SEATTLE — Despite incremental improvements to ferry service in Washington state over the last year, a hectic Memorial Day weekend, replete with mechanical issues and crew shortages, highlighted the fragility of the nation’s largest ferry system.

Routes to and around the San Juan Islands, between Mukilteo and Clinton and from Seattle to Bremerton, suffered from restricted, delayed and canceled sailings over the weekend, as two boats, the Yakima and Kitsap, needed emergency repairs and two others, the Tillikum and Chelan, were sidelined for lack of crew.

The tumult, on a weekend when more than 300,000 people were expected to set sail, was enough to strand travelers for hours or even overnight in Friday Harbor, an inauspicious start to what’s likely to be a busy summer for the ferries. And while not every weekend will see this level of malfunction, more lasting fixes, in the form of new boats and fully staffed crews, are still years away.

“Between those two things, is ferry service going to be what it was pre-pandemic? The answer’s no,” Washington State Ferries spokesperson Ian Sterling said of what to expect this summer. “Is it going to be better than it was last year? The answer’s yes.”

Though conditions returned mostly to normal by Tuesday, the inter-island service in the San Juan Islands, on the vessel Tillikum, remained canceled for most of the day because of a lack of mariners, Sterling said.

The vessel Yakima, sailing between Anacortes and the San Juan Islands, had to be docked Sunday because of a steering control problem and replaced after several missed sailings. In a message to lawmakers Tuesday, John Vezina, director of planning, customer and government relations at Washington State Ferries, called the boat’s issues “substantial” and warned it could be out for months.

The ferry system moved to replace the Yakima, but after its six-hour-plus trip from the south, there weren’t enough crew members to return it to service, Vezina said.

On Monday morning, several sailings on the Mukilteo/Clinton route — typically one of the busiest as people head back to the mainland from Whidbey Island — were canceled as crews made repairs to the vessel Kitsap. The boat was back in service as of 1 p.m., according to WSDOT.

Lack of crew on one of the vessels on the Seattle/Bremerton route led to limited passenger capacity Sunday, according to WSDOT.

Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said Kitsap County constituents messaged her all weekend about delays, to the point where she emailed ferry officials that the situation felt “hopeless.”

The ferries have struggled for years now with the twin horsemen of malfunctioning boats and crew shortages. The weekend’s disruptions were more the former than the latter, said Sterling, a sign of the fleet’s age.

Washington State Ferries went 10 years, from 2000 to 2010, without building a new boat. Eleven of the 21 vessels in use are over 40 years old, including five over 50. Mechanical failures can range from the minor, such as an electrical fire in a closet earlier this month, to the dramatic, as when the ferry Walla Walla lost power last month and ran aground on Bainbridge Island.

“We need to be building new boats, and we need to find a shipyard that can do it,” Sterling said.

Lawmakers have pledged more than $1.5 billion over the next 16 years to build four new hybrid electric boats and to preserve those still in use. The Tillikum, as well as several other boats, is due for retirement, but is being kept afloat with nearly $20 million a year in maintenance costs.

During the peak summer months, the system has no boats to spare. “The big challenge is we don’t have a relief vessel right now,” said Sen. Liz Lovelett, D-Anacortes.

Plans to bring on new ships have already been delayed by at least two years after a breakdown in negotiations between the state and Vigor, the Seattle-based shipbuilder that built the last 10 ferries. With those talks in pieces, lawmakers passed legislation this year to make it easier to seek out-of-state bids to build new ferries.

Lovelett said she’s still hopeful the boats can be built in-state, but making the process more competitive was necessary to move affordable construction forward.

“It was definitely an uncomfortable place, to consider going out of the state to build vessels,” she said.

Crew shortages, wrought by retirements, resignations and firings, have shown signs of abating. Dan Twohig, regional representative for the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, said all permanent positions covered by his union were filled for the first time in several years as of earlier this month.

“What’s going on right now is not us,” he said.

Lawmakers approved budget increases in 2023 to cover a labor contract, new vessel construction and more training. The biennial transportation budget, passed this year, includes more than $20 million for scholarships, training, recruitment and overtime to ease the pain of crew shortages.

Sterling said there was no sign of any “sickout” or crews refusing to work the holiday weekend, but rather the ferries simply continued to struggle with a long-term shortage of personnel — especially captains and mates who navigate the vessels. A hiring wave is underway but it takes years for ferry crews to gain the experience and extra study to become deck officers, said Sterling.

“We’ve made great progress, but there’s still a worldwide shortage of trained mariners out there,” Sterling said. He used the “perfect storm” cliché in describing the combination of problems over the weekend.

BC Ferries in British Columbia also saw crew shortages force a slew of cancellations the weekend of May 20.

When ferries miss scheduled sailings, it affects not only tourists but the residents making essential trips for school outings, health care or supplies.

Rebecca Soland of San Juan Island, mother of a 3-month-old boy, said she was forced to cancel a doctor’s appointment in Bellingham on May 3, when WSF missed the 11:05 a.m. sailing from Friday Harbor to Anacortes. “I was changing him in my car, when I overheard another passenger saying the ferry had been canceled,” she recalled. There was no announcement and Soland approached a ferry worker who confirmed the bad news, she said.

She was allowed to reschedule the exam for May 4 — a day when the 11:05 a.m. ferry didn’t show again, but the appointment was late enough for Soland to get there on the next boat. Obstetric care is minimal in Friday Harbor, and moms are told to stay in Bellingham a few days before childbirth to prevent an emergency travel crisis, she said.

“It was incredibly frustrating. My doctor was very kind in the whole cancellation. My family has lived in the islands for almost 30 years. I was raised on this island and it’s getting worse and worse. We get the oldest boats, the ones most prone to break down.”

The Memorial Day problems contrast with the successful Labor Day 2021 weekend when 19 boats operated with zero cancellations, averting what many expected to be a mess at the docks. WSF has also made 95% of its scheduled sailings in 2023, Sterling said. After cutting many routes in half during 2020, full schedules were restored to most, except for the Bremerton-Seattle, Port Townsend-Coupeville, and Vashon-Southworth-Fauntleroy triangle route, each down one boat.