Staff shortages delay expanded ferry schedules until April

Staff shortages are delaying expanded spring ferry service schedules to the San Juan Islands and between Port Townsend and Coupeville until April 10.

“It just allows us to get our ducks online and make sure things are properly staffed so that we can provide that service there,” Washington State Ferries spokesman Ian Sterling told KIRO News radio.

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The ferry service has hired 100 new employees since October, what Sterling calls a light at the end of the tunnel.

“We’re hiring as fast as we can,” he said, adding, “The good news is we’re starting to see service restored.”

However, vacancies cannot be filled by just anyone. Ferry employees must complete marine firefighting and water rescue courses and obtain Coast Guard certification.

“These are not jobs you can just walk into on the street. They are highly skilled merchant marines,” he noted.

The continued shortage of crews is an issue for WSF that dates back to late 2021. In October, the ferry system moved to a reduced sailing schedule following a series of canceled trips. The plan at the time was to provide a schedule that the ferry service could reliably provide, so that passengers could be sure that a boat would be waiting for them when they arrived at the terminal. This reduced the crew shortage problems.

After gradually returning the boats to normal service, WSF ran into early difficulties, with crew shortages again leading to multiple cancellations in December. As of late 2021, the ferry service was still operating on a handful of reduced schedules, with problems further exacerbated by extreme winter weather and the early days of an increase in COVID cases driven by the omicron variant.

For now, Sterling is still advising passengers to check online for the latest schedule changes.

MyNorthwest staff contributed to this report.