CHOKEPOINTS

Staffing woes to blame for ‘chaotic’ weekend of Washington ferry cancellations

Aug 23, 2022, 6:39 AM | Updated: 8:41 am
ferry...
(Rose Braverman via Flickr)
(Rose Braverman via Flickr)

Last weekend was one of the worst for ferry cancellations of the summer. Nearly all the routes were impacted by crew shortages or mechanical issues.

What is the Washington State Ferries saying?

WSF’s Ian Sterling said the frustration is mutual, with the cancellations piling up. “It is demoralizing to not be able to run the service that we’d like to be able to run,” he said.

And last weekend was particularly bad. “Service is not where it needs to be,” Sterling said. “There is no doubt about it. This last weekend was pretty chaotic. A lot of canceled sailings. A lot of reduced service and a lot of that was just due to either mechanical issues or crewing.”

Sterling said they are actively recruiting new people, but it can take 18 months to get the training and certifications needed to join a boat. You can’t just pick people up off the street that have no experience. “You get these compounding issues,” he said. “We’re almost to the point of bare minimum staff to run regular service, but it only takes one position to make it so we can’t sail.”

With aging maritime industry jeopardizing state’s ferries, meet the next gen of diverse mariners

That thin thread on crewing showed up in an odd way last week, and it illustrates just how tenuous the situation is. Last Tuesday, service was abruptly stopped on the Mukilteo-Clinton route at about 8:30 p.m. Both boats were knocked out at once.

The first boat for a lack of staff. The second boat because it needed to refuel.

Refuel? How does that happen during active service?

Sterling said fueling companies that supply the diesel have had trouble getting drivers to deliver, and when the driver did show up to fuel one of the boats, there wasn’t a properly credentialed crew member to take it. “We didn’t have an engineer to oversee that refueling on one of the boats, so we had to remove one from the other boat while the other took on fuel,” he said. “That shuts down service for a couple of hours.”

You read that right. The crewing is so thin they had to take an engineer from one boat, knocking it out of service, to handle the fueling. “Hopefully this is just a one-off, and things are going to start to improve on the fuel side of the house,” Sterling said. “This is just one of those post-pandemic weird things.”

Washington ferry cancellations go ‘beyond COVID’: Report highlights systemic staffing issues

WSF said the biggest need is in the engineering room right now. Oilers and engineers are in short supply.

The latest estimates show the ferries not returning to full pre-pandemic service until the middle of next year.

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Staffing woes to blame for ‘chaotic’ weekend of Washington ferry cancellations