For decades, when the county fair ends, Lopez and Orcas participants pack up their horses, goats, sheep and chickens and head for the last ferry sailing.
This year, all of the Orcas-bound trailers and trucks with livestock were left behind at the Friday Harbor terminal on Saturday, Aug. 18. According to Washington State Ferries, the 10 p.m. sailing with the Kaleetan had a significant number of tall vehicles to load, and not everyone could fit.
“Despite knowing more than a year in advance, despite being notified multiple times in the last week and despite being notified that horses and livestock were to be treated equal to medical priority, Washington State Ferries chose to prioritize (cars headed to) Anacortes,” said Justin Paulsen, an Orcas resident whose family was impacted.
For those left behind, it meant staying up until well past midnight to unload and secure their animals back at the fairgrounds. Some of the livestock had injuries and were under the weather from four days of activity. After sleeping a few hours – many had to stay in their cars – kids and their parents then caught the first ferry back home on Sunday.
“I’ve met with legal counsel and will be proceeding with a formal complaint against WSF,” Paulsen said. “What we want is an investigation, some accountability and how they will ensure us this will never happen again. … The state ferries’ system violated Washington state administrative code in how they acted.”
Washington code 468-300-700 reads that for the Anacortes-San Juan Islands routes, preferential loading must be given to “a vehicle carrying livestock and traveling on routes where Washington state ferries is the only major access for land-based traffic, where such livestock (i) is raised for commercial purposes and is recognized by the department of agriculture, county agriculture soil and conservation service, as raised on a farm; or (ii) is traveling to participate in a 4H event sanctioned by a county extension agent.”
John Vezina, director of government relations for Washington State Ferries, agreed that livestock is granted priority, but only when there is enough space.
“Several of the complaints we’ve received have stressed the policy that livestock are given priority loading. This is absolutely true, but that does not equate to being guaranteed space on the vessel, only that they are prioritized when there is space. And on Saturday, nearly all the talls were a priority, meaning some couldn’t be accommodated,” he said in a written statement to the Sounder. “The last sailing from Friday Harbor is at 10 p.m., stopping at Orcas, Shaw, Lopez, and then Anacortes. Because it’s a multi-destination sailing, vehicles must be loaded so they can disembark at their designated terminals. This means loading Anacortes vehicles, then Lopez then Shaw then Orcas, so they can get off in reverse order. Due to the fair, there was an unusual number of tall vehicles, with eight being taken for Anacortes, 26 for Lopez, and then those for Orcas. When the vessel was full, there were about 18 Orcas and three Anacortes tall vehicles left behind.”
Paulsen disagrees with Vezina’s version of events. He said some of the Lopez vehicles that made the boat didn’t have livestock.
“Every Lopez person I’ve talked to (without livestock) said they would have stayed in Friday Harbor to let Orcas people with animals get on the boat,” Paulsen said. “It wasn’t like Lopez was begging to get their cars on. Everyone was just doing what they were told.”
Vezina said that the Friday Harbor terminal staff made two requests for the Samish to add service. The first was for the vessel to take passengers and vehicles to Anacortes from its last stop in Orcas (usually the trip is a “deadhead,” without passengers), and the second was for the Samish to make additional stops at Friday Harbor and Orcas, picking up passengers and vehicles in Friday Harbor and taking them to Orcas and then on to Anacortes.
“The request to take the Orcas traffic was approved by the watch supervisor, but the additional stops in Friday Harbor or Orcas was not,” Vezina wrote. “We understand the impact this situation had on those trying to get home on Saturday night. While not the fault of our terminal staff or vessel crews, who did everything correctly, sending the Samish to Friday Harbor, before its added stop at Orcas, would have allowed everyone to get home that night.”
He says that WSF will investigate why the Friday Harbor stop, which could have carried all the extra tall vehicles bound for Orcas and Anacortes, wasn’t approved.
“Also, for next year, we will discuss if the fair has gotten so large an extra sailing should be routinely added going forward,” he said.
San Juan County Councilman Rick Hughes and Ferry Advisory Committee Chairman Jim Corenman have spoken to officials at WSF about the incident. For next year, Hughes said he is going to work with 4H leaders to nail down the arrival and departure times, which will then be conveyed to WSF. He said there is likely to be an additional sailing on the peak travel day.
“I’m sorry it happened. It’s a very unfortunate situation,” he said. “I’ll do whatever I can do to help them.”
Paulsen remains frustrated about the chaos it caused for island families. His wife Amber drove onto the boat with their seven-year-old son Eliot, but she departed the vessel on foot to help a fellow Orcas islander back-on a horse trailer. She cleared it first with the ferry crew, and explained her son was in the car. While waiting to drive on with the trailer, Amber heard over a ferry staff’s radio: “(The rest of) Orcas isn’t going to make it.” Panicked that her son was still on the boat without her, she ran back onto the ferry. Justin stayed on San Juan with their livestock.
“It comes down to: who does WSF prioritize service for?” he asked. “We’ve been told over and over again that WSF cannot legally prioritize one group over another. But what happened Saturday is that they prioritized Anacortes-bound vehicles over livestock bound for inter-island travel. We consistently see traffic to and from Anacortes given priority.”