When LaDora Sella, of Seattle, heard a ferry wasn’t running during her annual trip to San Juan Island, she wasn’t worried.
“It wasn’t my boat, so I didn’t think it would affect me, but now it’s affecting me getting back,” said Sella.
Sella’s reservation on Tuesday, July 18 for a 1:50 p.m. departure from Friday Harbor turned into about an-hour-and-a-half wait.
The wait, according to Ian Sterling with Washington State Ferries, was partially caused by two inoperative vessels.
To operate without the missing vessels, an “emergency schedule” was released at the end of the day on July 18. The schedule will be used from July 19 through the end of the month or early August.
The emergency schedule:
- Does not allow new vehicle reservations for any San Juan Island sails.
- Allows those who previously made reservations to load on the ferries first. Others will load on a first-come, first-serve basis.
- Does not charge reservation holders who don’t ride the ferry.
- Cancels one, morning international sail to Sidney, British Columbia. An afternoon sail is still in place.
- Allows Sidney travelers to use BC ferries as alternative transportation.
The Yakima went out of service on Sunday, July 16. The roughly 50-year-old vessel needs “major repair,” said Sterling, including a new generator and other maintenance.
The Kitsap, the only backup vessel for WSF’s 22 ferries, is also out.
Sterling expects the Kitsap to be running within a few weeks, while the Yakima could take up to three weeks. According to a press release given at the end of the day on July 18, “the Yakima will be replaced by another vessel as soon as possible.”
Usually, five ferries are used for summer sails from the San Juans to the mainland, but now there are four.
Extended wait times are to be expected, continued the press release. The communication advised passengers to:
- Arrive at least 90 minutes to two hours early, even with a reservation.
- Ride as a walk-on passenger or with a bike, as there is more room for those without vehicles. The Anacortes terminal also has paid parking.
Each ferry, said Sterling, operates 20-plus hours a day, about 300 days a year. In the summer, ridership increases about 50 percent. This creates some wear and tear on vessels, which he explained in the following analogy.
“More than likely, if you have 22 cars in your garage, especially ones that date back to being 60 years old and up, one or two are going to have a problem,” he said.
The inoperative ferries caused 12 sails to be canceled on Monday, July 17 and a different, one-day schedule to be implemented on July 18.
With fewer vessels, sometimes making additional stops, less traffic is transported, said WSF employee Robert Kyte.
“It’s turned every day into a Sunday [typically the busiest day]; every parking lot is full,” said Kyte, who was checking in passengers at the Friday Harbor ferry terminal on July 18. “Things keep getting pushed, further and further behind.”
Sterling said additional backup vessels are a “luxury,” that would be expensive for WSF to build, maintain and crew.
According to the Washington State Transportation Commission, WSF lost half of its operational funds when the state repealed the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax in 1999. To make up for this loss, fares have increased roughly 100 percent since 2001.
A third ferry was out on Sunday, July 16, on the Seattle-to-Bainbridge route, but has since been fixed.
Missing a backup vessel is new to Sterling.
“I’ve been with the ferries for a couple of years now,” he said. “It hasn’t happened in my time that there’s just been no bench.”
For more information, visit www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries. On the right of the page, under “Travel Conditions,” view or subscribe to ferry alerts. Check the Journal for updates.