Where’s That Ferry?

Posted June 20, 2019 at 5:50 am by

The Nisqually - One of Four Steel-Electric class ferries before it's most recent retrofit

I’ve always loved the Wash­ing­ton State Fer­ries (well, almost always*).

This is the sec­ond in a 3‑part series about our late run­ning fer­ry sys­tem. Many thanks to Jim Coren­man, Chair of the San Juans Fer­ry Advi­so­ry Com­mit­tee for his input on this issue. (and yes, we’ll hear from Jim in today’s article)…

Part Two — The Cause

I remem­ber falling in love with the fer­ries when I was a kid. My fam­i­ly moved here when I was 8 years old and we lived for a time on the water­front in town where we could watch the fer­ries come and go. The Ever­green State was the “big” boat on the Anacortes/San Juans route, with the Klick­i­tat and Nisqually back­ing her up.

I remem­ber the book “The Ever­green Fleet” we had on the cof­fee table. From that I learned about the old­er fer­ries pur­chased from the San Fran­cis­co area. I remem­ber the Kalakala, the Olympic and the Rhodo­den­dron. Does any­one remem­ber the Vashon sail­ing here in the islands? The steel-electrics: Klick­i­tat, Nisqually, Quin­ault and Illa­hee before their retro­fits (see pho­to above).

At a dis­tance I could tell the dif­fer­ence between the Ever­green State and her sis­ters the Tillikum and the Kla­howya because the Ever­green State had a slight­ly dif­fer­ent wheel­house. The “new” Super class — the Kalee­tan, Yaki­ma, Hyak and Elwha built less than a decade ear­li­er in San Diego and sailed up the coast…

And then fast for­ward to 2000 when I returned to the island with my wife Shan­non and kids.

Shan­non (who com­mutes to the main­land for work) would explain to her co-work­ers (who could­n’t believe she “put up with” rid­ing a fer­ry to work), what a joy it was com­pared to sit­ting in traf­fic. Where else on your com­mute can you read a book, or take a nap, or hel­lo? — Look out the win­dow at some world class scenery? (Hmmm let’s see… Rush hour traf­fic or Wash­ing­ton State Fer­ry through the San Juans… Oh please help me choose…)

I remem­ber explain­ing to the unini­ti­at­ed how the fer­ry ride was a wel­comed sort of imposed relax­ation on an oth­er­wise hec­tic 21st cen­tu­ry life. It was time to enjoy the view. It was time to unwind and unplug and to just chill for an hour or so.

I real­ly felt it was my fer­ry sys­tem in some ways. And I loved it dearly.

*And then some­thing changed…

It seems it was around the time the reser­va­tions sys­tem kicked in. WSF sud­den­ly became more dis­tant, cold and uncar­ing. Does any­one remem­ber them ask­ing if we want­ed a reser­va­tion sys­tem in the first place? It seems that was imposed with­out regard to islanders’ wants and needs.

Sug­ges­tions I’ve giv­en to improve var­i­ous aspects of ser­vice seemed to fall on deaf ears.

And their abil­i­ty to sail on time… See yes­ter­day’s arti­cle if you haven’t already. This one real­ly hit home. At this point in our lives, Shan­non and I are rid­ing the fer­ries more than we ever have before. We’ve been sub­scribed to the fer­ry alert email sys­tem since 2000 or so, but it has real­ly gone crazy in the past few years. We are bom­bard­ed by alerts near­ly every day and some­times up to 7 or 8 in the same day.

Not want­i­ng to lose my love for the fer­ry sys­tem, I asked Jim Coren­man if he could shed some light. Here is his response:

“There has been a lot of con­cern about fer­ries run­ning late, and with good reason.

First, we’ve got to remem­ber that spring and fall are shoul­der sea­sons, and tran­si­tion­al. Traf­fic is light in the win­ter into ear­ly spring (March), but as sum­mer approach­es, traf­fic increas­es towards sum­mer lev­els. In pre­vi­ous years this was a slow tran­si­tion, but reser­va­tions have been suc­cess­ful at push­ing vis­i­tors into trav­el­ing ear­li­er in the spring and lat­er in the fall, and also push­ing locals ear­li­er and lat­er in each day to get a reser­va­tion. (The Fri­day Har­bor 05:45am “red-eye” sail­ing has over­loaded mul­ti­ple times this spring, which is unprece­dent­ed). Also, in years past, sum­mer sched­ule start­ed in ear­ly June, but was pushed back a cou­ple of years ago. This year spring sched­ule start­ed at the end of Match and runs through June 23– which is a very busy time.

So the spring/fall sched­ule is a com­pro­mise- more ser­vice than need­ed in March and ear­ly April and less than need­ed in June. And by June we are suf­fer­ing full boats, more traf­fic than can be loaded/unloaded in the allot­ted dwell-time, and boats get late– but usu­al­ly not more than 20–30 min by the end of the day on a busy June week­end. “Bet­ter a late boat than no boat” has been the mantra.

The real prob­lem this spring is lack of boats– WSF is out of spare boats. So when the 144-car Samish had to go in for ser­vice for three months, the sub­sti­tute was a small­er boat– 90-car Sealth for 7 weeks, then the 124-car Chelan for the next four weeks. That is a loss of thou­sands of spaces a week, com­pound­ing the already stressed schedule.

The Samish work was a war­ran­ty job due to builder error, so no dol­lar cost to fer­ries but it was still 3 months with a fer­ry out of service.

More details: WSF has 17 boats in ser­vice in the win­ter, 18 in the late spring and ear­ly fall, and 19 in sum­mer. The dif­fer­ences are our routes with four boats fall/winter/spring and five in sum­mer, and Port Townsend/Coupville with one boat in win­ter and two in late spring, sum­mer, and ear­ly fall. The total fleet has been 23 boats, so tech­ni­cal­ly 5 spares for spring/fall with 18 in ser­vice: four under­go­ing main­te­nance, and one spare for the unex­pect­ed. But as a result of decades of being under-fund­ed for main­te­nance, a series of expect­ed and unex­pect­ed out­ages has left fer­ries down to its last spare boat– the lit­tle Sealth– which had to come here.

There is anoth­er fac­tor: Because we have four boats serv­ing six ter­mi­nals, the sched­ules for the var­i­ous islands are nec­es­sar­i­ly inter­twined with boats often arriv­ing at the same ter­mi­nal only 10–15 min­utes apart. When one boat gets 20 min late, the next boat also becomes late. “Late­ness is infec­tious”, some­one recent­ly said.

And the clear win­ner of this sea­son’s late-boat award is the Elwha. She does the Sid­ney run plus four runs to Orcas and Shaw and car­ries a lot of Fri­day Harbor/Anacortes traf­fic on her way to/from Sid­ney. (In sum­mer, the small­er Chelan does two Sid­ney runs a day– plus an ear­ly Lopez sail­ing– leav­ing the main­land boats to do the main­land traffic).

The Elwha has got­ten so late this late spring that it has near­ly lapped itself on a few occa­sions– being so late that its 6:30pm sail­ing to Shaw/Orcas ran into its 8:55pm sail­ing to Shaw/Orcas. When this hap­pens it either just runs hours late, or a sail­ing gets can­celed if every­one will fit onto the one sailing.

So why is the Elwha such a late-boat prob­lem? That is a mys­tery that we are explor­ing with WSF. They have reduced speed cross­ing Haro Straits to reduce noise for the Orcas, but that is a rel­a­tive­ly short part of the trip and a small effect on the schedule.

Why not adjust the sched­ule? There is no fund­ing to add crew hours, so the only option is to cut ser­vice– i.e. drop a sail­ing which would have a dev­as­tat­ing effect on everyone.”

Thank you Jim for shar­ing that. It’s a lot to chew on, and not real­ly good news, but it cer­tain­ly explains things and takes away some of the sting.

Tomor­row we’ll hear from Jim again. We will take a more pos­i­tive look at what is being done already, and some things that are in the works in:

Part Three: The Solution

Scratch that — The “Solu­tion” got pre­empt­ed by Part Three: More Problems

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Categories: Ferries

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