Sobbing mothers. Screaming infants. An angry mob.
These are not what one thinks of when imagining a lovely vacation weekend in the beautiful San Juan islands. Yet this is exactly what happened Sunday afternoon, and well into the night, at the ferry terminal in Friday Harbor, in record numbers the likes of which have never been seen before in the San Juans.
According to Jerri Dunayski, manager of the ferry terminal in Friday Harbor, this past Memorial Day weekend was the worst she’s seen in over twenty years with the ferry service.
To hear Dunayski tell it, the situation was a perfect storm that started brewing Friday as full boat after full boat began to descend on Friday Harbor. With four boats in service, and Memorial Day weekend traffic back to pre-Covid numbers, hundreds upon hundreds of vehicles and thousands of vacationing travelers made their way to the islands to enjoy the sunny weekend.
“Sunday morning was dead slow,” said Dunayski, “but by afternoon the ferry lines really began to fill up.” Unfortunately for those waiting to catch a ferry back to the mainland following a lovely weekend in the islands, the 135-car ferry Yakima was unexpectedly taken out of service with mechanical issues.
That’s when things really began to fall apart.
The loss of the Yakima cancelled three full sailings, forcing ferry employees to do the best they could to accommodate an ever-increasing line of cars vying for a spot on the next possible ferry. The line of bumper-to-bumper cars reached all the way up Spring Street to well past the roundabout, gnarling traffic for even those not wishing to catch a ferry.
At one point Dunayski said they were forced to send cars away as they squeezed vehicle after vehicle into car lanes filled with frustrated travelers. As the day went on the backups increased, with no end in sight.
As the last operational ferry of the evening was being loaded “it was the shock and awe factor,” said Dunayski, describing the reactions of drivers and passengers as ferry terminal staff were forced to explain to people that they were likely not going to get off the island that night.
By nightfall a record number of 116 cars were stranded on San Juan island for the night, with 103 cars and their passengers staying in line and forced to sleep in their cars because there was no lodging available across the entire island. “We tried calling everybody, hotels, B&Bs. Even the hostel was full,” added Dunayski.
Frustrated and angry, people began to gather at the terminal to demand something be done. But ferry terminal staff have no power over the ferry system. That’s the responsibility of the Operations staff located miles to the south in Seattle or Olympia.
At one point the Sheriff was called, and two deputies were dispatched to assist with the situation well past midnight, attempting to calm the angry crowds.
Vehicles with families crammed in with all their travel belongings filled Lot A, Lot B, and Lot C, said Dunayski, describing a surreal scene that she’d never seen before. “I’m concerned that this will happen again,” said Dunayski, explaining she now fears what might happen over the summer, especially the busy weekends like the Fourth of July and Labor Day.
With over 350 trained and experienced ferry crew members and staff laid off during Covid for declining to take the vaccine, the ferry service remains significantly understaffed. Many of those crew would like to return, but they would have to start at the bottom, losing their seniority, pay grades, and all the benefits of their former positions.
Even with all the new hires that are slowly coming aboard, Dunayski fears that there aren’t nearly enough to cover the number of crew expected to retire in the coming months, let alone replace those lost during Covid.
She’s not alone fearing that this current situation could last for years.
WSF leadership acknowledged during a virtual meeting May 31 that Memorial Day weekend was difficult. During an online community meeting held this past week with WSF leadership and residents of the region the discussion focused on staffing challenges and new vessel builds, explaining that these things take time.
“On a weekend like this last one, when the Yakima, an older boat, had to be pulled from service we didn’t have a relief readily available,” said John Vezina, Director of Planning, Customer and Government Relations at WSF. “Now, our usual standard is to wait 24 hours to see if we can replace the boat, and then move forward, but knowing how important that third boat is to (the San Juan Islands), especially on a holiday weekend when they’re fully reserved, we immediately began a boat move from south sound to get the Kaleetan up there.”
“But with our crewing challenges, it’s all tied together,” continued Vezina. “When the boat got there its crew no longer had the Coast Guard acceptable hours to keep running that night. So we had to tie it up until the next day. And that meant we left (over 100) vehicles and probably a couple 100 people stranded in Friday Harbor that night.”
“We feel horrible about that,” Vezina stated. “We know for those people as bad as we feel, it was way more impactful to them and to local businesses.”
“We have been talking to the legislature, and the public, about the fact that we had a ‘Silver Tsunami’ coming, and that over 50% of our senior deck and engine room employees were eligible for retirement in the next five years,” said Vezina. “Then COVID hit and we lost a lot of those folks. But for us it takes a significant amount of time to do that training and credentialing and move people up, because safety is always our number one concern and the Coast Guard sets crewing limits for us.”
“We are working hard to hire folks in Anacortes and the San Juan Islands, so people are closer,” adds Vezina. “But they can’t afford on a state salary—and our vessel employees are paid fairly well—but with home prices in Anacortes and the San Juans they can’t afford to live there on our salaries, so they haven’t applied to work for us.”
“There is an extreme housing crisis here,” says Jessica Clifton, manager of four housing complexes in Friday Harbor. “The ferry isn’t helping anything, either, because we can’t get off the island. A lot of the things that we need to get taken care of as islanders, we can’t because we can’t go. Or like my daughter is graduating next week, and to get people over here is extremely challenging.”
“This affects us deeply,” says Dave Morton, owner of The Sweet Retreat & Espresso in downtown Friday Harbor. “We’re hurting here! We are local businesses, with families, and we need access to the mainland for things like medical appointments and supplies. This is our highway, and we want our highway back!”
For long-time islander Jack Cory, this is nothing new. “It’s on the forefront right now because of this cluster of cancellations, but that’s been going on for years. “I think the general attitude, at least in my opinion, is they just don’t care,” referring to WSF leadership and their concerns for the islands.
“There’s nobody on top that seems to be aware of what’s going on. Somehow you gotta get above the junior administrators that are protecting their [butt] and have nothing to lose. You’ve got to get up there to whoever that person is and say either get this problem solved, or show real evidence of working towards a solution, or the governor should replace them. To use a military term, this is a real Charlie Foxtrot.”