Ferry boats

A ferry heads back toward Anacortes on July 18. Because of the pandemic, only three ferries are currently coming in and out of Anacortes, compared to the five normally operating here in the summer. The result has been regular delays in service. 

By Briana Alzola

Some routes on the Washington State Ferries are experiencing some serious delays, but Ferries spokesman Ian Sterling said that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

“We’re doing the best we can,” he said. “Service isn’t going to be normal for quite some time.”

The ferry system remains on its winter schedule. That means fewer boats than normal traveling throughout the system and two less on the Anacortes-San Juan Islands routes. Ridership is also down, but it has increased from the early days of lockdown in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sterling urged people to follow Gov. Jay Inslee’s recommendations for essential travel only. Fewer people on the ferries means everyone stays safer, he said.

It also means fewer trips for those people who do have to travel.

A reduced number of vessels dealing with the increase in cars that come with warmer weather means vessels are often running late out of Anacortes and the San Juan Islands.

“This is not a schedule that is meant to handle summertime loads of cars,” Sterling said of the winter schedule.

The ferry system is at roughly 70% what it normally is in the summertime, but that’s still more cars than it sees in the winter, he said.

Friday, July 16, the ferries on the Anacortes routes carried 8,200 travelers. On a similar Friday last summer, they carried roughly 11,000.

Though lower than normal, the traffic is still high enough to cause delays on the three vessels traveling to and from Anacortes right now. There are normally five. The winter schedule doesn’t leave as much time to load cars off and on the boats either, Sterling said. So, ferries are delayed a little bit at each stop, which adds up over the course of the day.

It’s inconvenient, but it’s not just an issue here, Sterling said. Service is reduced all over the ferry system, in some terminals by 50%.

The system can’t just up the number of boats on its schedules, though, 

because they don’t have to money or crew to run a full schedule. More than 100 crew members are in a high-risk population, like those that are older or who have underlying conditions, and are staying home and not working in terminals or on vessels, Sterling said.

The ferry system also saw its training program shut down because of the pandemic earlier this year. 

It trained a few terminal employees to be able to work on vessels but it didn’t have the surge of new crew members typical in the summer, Sterling said.

“Even in normal times, we run our ferries on a skeleton crew,” Sterling said. “We have no spare people. On an average summer, we struggle to have enough people to staff the boats.”

Service across the fleet may be increased in the coming months, but for now, Sterling just urged people to stay home unless they have essential travel.

On board the ferry vessels (and in the terminals) masks are required for everyone, galleys are closed and riders are asked to stay in their cars to make it a safer environment for everyone, Sterling said.

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