Where’s That Ferry?

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

Posted on June 20, 2019 at 5:50 am by

Categories: Ferries
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