A shortage of boats and crew at Washington State Ferries is subjecting travelers to a summer of cancellations.
A high number of trips have already been canceled this year, according to WSF spokesperson Ian Sterling. Since February, at least 57 round-trip sailings have been called off due to staffing shortages. There were only 10 and five cancellations in the same time period respectively in 2019 and 2018.
As ridership is returning to pre-pandemic levels, passengers are starting to notice lapses in service, Sterling said. For an agency that typically completes 99% of its scheduled trips, those cancellations and travel alerts have been demoralizing for staff members, he said. Some trips were canceled in the San Juan Islands over the weekend, and the Bremerton-Seattle route Tuesday morning.
For every cancellation, Sterling said there are 10 more that were almost canceled. Dispatch scrambled and employees, scheduled to be off, volunteered to come in.
It’s resulting in burnout among staff, said Jay Ubelhart, president of the Inlandboatmen’s Union.
A crew shortage knocked the Port Townsend-Coupeville route to just one ferry at the height of touring season. Chief of Staff Nicole McIntosh blamed it on “an unprecedented staffing challenge” in a personnel letter posted on all vessels June 24.
While thanking crew for extraordinary work to keep boats moving in the pandemic, she urged them to answer last-minute calls to work. “We have an obligation to the taxpayers of the state to not miss sailings due to crewing. When we do it lets down thousands of customers who trust and depend on us to get them safely to their destinations,” she wrote.
The agency reports nearly 300,000 riders during the holiday weekend. Saturday was the highest ridership day with nearly 86,000 riders, the most in a single day since Sept. 21, 2019, according to Sterling.
Though fleet size has improved since May, when WSF was short three boats, the usual summer fleet of 19 vessels is down to 18 after an engine fire this spring aboard the ferry Wenatchee will keep that boat docked for months.
That’s barely manageable, because pandemic border restrictions have canceled service from Anacortes to Sidney, B.C., freeing up one boat for domestic trips.
Depending on the vessel and the number of passengers, the U.S. Coast Guard mandates a certain number of crew members before a boat can leave the dock.
Before 2012, crews operated with an extra member in case someone calls in sick, or has car trouble on the way to work, according to Sterling. To save money, ferries are now scheduled with the minimum number of crew members. One absent colleague can result in a canceled sailing — forcing passengers to wait for the next trip.
Washington State Ferries recommends travelers use its travel and traffic guide, planning trips early in the morning or later at night and checking the travel alerts bulletin for schedule changes. If there is a long wait, WSF also suggests driving to another route without a delay.
The maritime industry in general struggles with recruiting young adults. But that has especially slowed during the pandemic for WSF, which faces a coming wave of retirements.
Working on a ferry is “a total shock to the system” compared to a typical 9-to-5 office job, said Ubelhart, who has worked on the state’s ferries for 20 years. To even apply for the most junior position, people must complete at least 14 days of training and often pay up to $400 out of pocket, he said.
Work schedules are unpredictable both on a day-to-day and season-to-season basis, especially for new employees without seniority or a steady shift, he said. New employees usually start out on call, and wait for a dispatcher to call with work.
“They’ll call you any time and you’re expected to jump into your uniform, grab a lunch and go to work,” Ubelhart said.
While working for WSF offers an upward career trajectory and a pension, Sterling said the agency has a hard time attracting young adults when competing with Seattle tech companies and the changing nature of work.
During the pandemic, Kitsap County resident Elliott Smith quit his office job to complete maritime training, with an eye toward work on a ferry. Instead, he began this summer working on a cargo ship in Beaumont, Texas.
Among other reasons, Smith was unwilling to spend at least two years on call, where he might be told to drive to any ferry terminal on any given day, or maybe not work at all.
“I would be applying for Washington State Ferries today, if I knew I could get a steady paycheck, but I’m not going to gamble for two years,” Smith said.
Wages also have not kept up with Seattle’s rising cost of living, said Ryan Brazeau, a fourth-generation ferry worker and officer in the Inlandboatmen’s Union. Tech has taken over the downtown area and people are unwilling to make long commutes to work for WSF, he said.
“This career is not built for a family either,” he said. “During this year COVID is taking a toll on people that have kids.”
As a taxpayer and Puget Sound-area native, Smith said it bothers him that the ferry logistics seem so disorganized. “We buy these multimillion-dollar boats, we keep them in shape, then we can’t run them because we don’t have enough people,” Smith said by phone from Texas last month.
Coming retirements and open positions
Since July 2019, 29 mates and captains have retired and 75 seamen have left, according to WSF. While the agency says it has managed to recruit enough seamen, they are still short about 10 senior deck crew.
The most recent breaking point has been the engine room, where around 34 employees have left, according to WSF. But a new class of about seven oilers is about to graduate, Sterling said, taking some pressure off the engine room staffs.
The agency is also anticipating more retirements. At least half the remaining senior engineers and deck crew are eligible for retirement, he said.
WSF couldn’t afford to build new boats for a decade, due to fallout from a car-tab cut in 2000. New taxes since the mid-2010s are replenishing the budget. The next boat, a 144-car hybrid electric-diesel vessel, will begin construction soon at Vigor in Seattle, but won’t sail until 2024. The existing fleet is working past retirement age, and three vessels are at or approaching 60 years old.
“Any time a ferry goes down, it shutters the whole system,” Brazeau said.
Correction: An initial version of this story inaccurately stated three of Washington State Ferries’ vessels are at least 60 years old. Only one ferry is more than 60 years old, while two others have operated 54 years.