The head of Washington State Ferries pledged Tuesday to increase training for deckhands, after a shortage of qualified crew canceled 31 trips last weekend.
The ferry system has difficulty finding substitutes when workers are out sick or have reached their maximum allowable work hours.
In March, for example, four trips were canceled when a vacationing captain was mistakenly marked on the schedule as on duty, while one deckhand called in sick and another overslept on a different route.
In 2012, dozens of trips were canceled.
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On Saturday, several workers called in sick or reported family emergencies, amid already tight staffing because of vacations and the fact that relief crew were already on the job in the busy summer season, said Marta Coursey, ferries communications director.
So passengers waited or detoured while 17 trips were missed on the Vashon-Southworth-Fauntleroy triangle, and 14 more on the Tahlequah-Point Defiance route.
“I understand their frustration and I apologize,” said ferries chief David Moseley.
“Our customers expect reliable service, particularly on and off Vashon Island. Missing sailings like this is not acceptable. It’s kind of understandable, but it’s not acceptable.”
The leaders of two unions predict more shortages and delays until the state can train more entry-level deckhands to become able-bodied seamen, to meet Coast Guard quotas for skilled crew per trip.
“There’s a massive shortage of deckhands and engineers,” said Dennis Conklin, Puget Sound regional director for the Inlandboatmen’s Union.
Conklin said just about all deckhands are working 100 hours every two weeks, and management didn’t plan well for vacations.
By late summer, some workers couldn’t report for extra shifts without violating the Coast Guard’s limit of working no more than 12 hours per 24-hour period, Conklin said.
Typically, a large vessel requires a captain, a first mate, a second mate, four able-bodied seamen and four ordinary seamen, said Tim Saffle, regional representative for the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots. An ordinary seaman can upgrade to an able-bodied seaman after the equivalent of 18 months of full-time work, plus a training course, Saffle said.
An able-bodied seaman can eventually become a mate, after a 30-day training course, travel and study of every navigation channel in the ferry system, and a Coast Guard test. Someone might reach the level in seven to 10 years, and mates earn $34 to $37 an hour, Saffle said.
So far, the mates have barely been able to cover every ferry trip, he said.
Around 2008, the state stopped subsidizing tuition and wages for the training that deckhands need to rise in rank, said Conklin.
Moseley said tight budgets, along with Coast Guard requirements last year for increased crew, made scheduling tighter.
“Obviously, in retrospect I wish we would have kept the training going,” Moseley said.
The ferry system will now make it top priority, he said, by reshuffling its $3.4 million biennial training budget, which also funds emergency readiness and other skills.
Moseley was meeting with port captains and operations managers Tuesday afternoon to discuss their strategy, his spokeswoman said.
He said the 2013-15 budget is set, and $132 million is being transferred already from other transportation needs to subsidize ferries, which recover about 70 percent of operating costs through fares.
State lawmakers proposed a huge boost for ferry operations and new vessels — up to $1 billion over 12 years, under one version — in a long-term transportation package that failed late in the 2013 session.
Ferry service between Point Defiance and Tahlequah, on south Vashon Island, was canceled from 5:55 a.m. until 11:45 a.m. Saturday.
The route from north Vashon to Southworth and Fauntleroy was down a boat in the afternoon.
Elliott Smith said he and his husband were driving from Westport to Bellingham when, at 4:20 p.m., they arrived to an empty lot at Southworth — other travelers had already detoured. But they were told the Bremerton terminal was full, so they waited until 6 p.m. for a ferry.
“I was not thrilled. We pay high fares for these. We expect people to show up for work,” Smith said. “In the words of Yogi Berra, it was very poorly unorganized.”
Moseley and the two union officials say the missed shifts were entirely due to shortages, not any labor dispute or sickout.
Saffle said he doesn’t put all the blame on ferry management, and wishes the state DOT had put more pressure on the Legislature to boost operations funding.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @mikelindblom