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Washington State Ferries plans to add 45 deckhands to its workforce, an effort to prevent the staffing shortages that have canceled dozens of sailings.

Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson called for the increase after 31 trips were canceled on Sept. 7. Vashon Island was largely isolated because of missed trips on the Vashon-Southworth-Fauntleroy triangle and the Tahlequah-Point Defiance route.

In all, staffing shortages have thwarted 82 crossings throughout Puget Sound this year, ferry officials say.

“Obviously we’re understaffed, so we haven’t been able to respond to the last-minute requests for relief, to people calling in sick,” Peterson said.

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Thirty deckhands who worked this summer will be retained at least half-time instead of being seasonally laid off, and 15 more will be hired by the end of this year, she said. Job openings have already been posted online for more-experienced deckhands
to work next summer.

“Right now, we’re staffing up,” Peterson said.

She said she didn’t have a cost estimate yet for the added deckhands.

“Other things will not get done, because this is more important,” Peterson said. “Missed sailings are not acceptable.”

The ferry system’s staffing shortages are partly due to a failure to train enough entry-level deckhands for positions that bear increased responsibility for safety. The Coast Guard requires specific combinations of deckhands, mates, engineers and pilots, who can operate a vessel and evacuate up to 2,500 passengers in an emergency.

In late 2011, ferry officials asked the Coast Guard to relax manning requirements — but the Coast Guard, with union support, took a fresh look at emergency response and set new requirements in late 2012. Typically that means 11 crew, or up to 14 on the largest boats at peak times. If even one person didn’t show up, a boat would be stuck.

There were at least 113 missed trips last year, roughly triple the previous year’s level, a KING 5 news report said.

State lawmakers in spring added more than $11 million to the budget to meet Coast Guard crew requirements the next two years. Meanwhile, the ferry system this summer ran low on workers, due to vacations, illness, and difficulty coordinating employee schedules. Some accrued so much overtime they were required by safety rules to turn down shifts.

“They [Washington State Ferries] were told there was a shortage. They put their heads in the sand until this summer,” said Dennis Conklin, regional director for the Inlandboatmen’s Union, representing about 1,000 local ferry deckhands.

Dispatchers were routinely making 300 daily calls to fill shifts, and 800 on Sept. 7, said David Moseley, deputy transportation secretary for ferries, in his weekly online newsletter.

Moseley apologized last month and promised to fix the problem.

One reason for shortages is that the state curtailed training subsidies, to stop covering wages plus $1,500 in tuition for deckhands known as “ordinary seamen” to become “able-bodied seamen,” Conklin said.

He asserted the state likely lost more money than it saved, just in overtime pay,

Capt. George Capacci, head of operations, said training will take time, because each person has to be off duty for 11 days.

“I think we’ve got a pretty good handle on it,” he said recently.

Another shortage — this one of marine engineers and technicians — looms in two or three years, says Dave Nashif, of the Maritime Engineers Benefit Association, representing 350 specialists.

The association’s training school in Maryland quit enrolling Washington ferry workers in September, because the state paid less than one-tenth the cost of training. The union plans to bring experts to Seattle to give limited training.

Several engineers have been lured by higher pay in private shipping or the oil industry, Nashif said.

By early 2014, the politics change when state lawmakers consider whether to raise taxes for a multibillion-dollar transportation plan — which would likely propose some kind of increase for ferry operations and maintenance.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or On Twitter @mikelindblom

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