By Mike De Felice
Kitsap News Group
PORT ORCHARD – During the pandemic, ferry riders had to contend with a wave of canceled sailings and a significant reduction in the number of trips on routes in and out of Kitsap County, but there seems to be smooth water ahead as Washington State Ferries officials hope to get the system back to normal by mid-year 2022.
“Over the next few months, I think you will begin to see most routes begin to come back online. We would hope by summertime we would be back to normal,” Washington State Ferries (WSF) public information officer Ian Sterling said.
But Sterling added a caveat:
“Of course, the pandemic, as usual, has some say over all of that. We don’t know where this whole thing is heading and that could once again impact how ferry service is.”
Severe staffing challenges hit the ferry system over the past two years. The fleet has had a difficult time finding employees after a high number of mariners decided to retire or leave the fleet because of Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID mandate requiring state workers to be vaccinated, Sterling said.
“There is a global shortage of merchant mariners out there. It’s not just us that are dealing with it. B.C. Ferries has similar problems,” he said.
“We also knew we had an aging workforce and had retirements coming. We had a good plan to deal with that, then COVID hit and threw a wrench into the entire thing. So, we are just short of people.”
The fleet also lost more than 7% of its staff on Oct. 18, the deadline state employees had to be vaccinated. “About 130 to 140 people chose to leave state employment over that requirement,” Sterling noted.
Staffing problems came to a head in October, leading WSF to announce major reductions in service.
“We were seeing lots and lots of sailings canceled due to not having enough staff. That was a situation we have not been in before,” the spokesman said. “In order get people some reliability and predictability, which is what we were hearing from the public, we went to a much-reduced schedule that we have been able to meet.”
The October changes affected most ferry routes coming to and leaving Kitsap County terminals.
Kitsap County routes
The Southworth-Vashon-Fauntleroy triangle lost a boat and approximately one-third of its sailings. The Bainbridge-Seattle route also lost one boat, resulting in 50% drop in service. The Bremerton-Seattle route was not impacted in October since it has already lost a boat at the start of the pandemic.
The Bainbridge route, traditionally one of the busiest routes with the largest boats, is likely to be the next central Sound route to be fully restored to its normal two-boat service, Sterling reported. “We are pretty close to where we can pull the trigger to make that happen,” he said.
WSF has already managed to return regular service on the Bainbridge-Seattle route by adding back a second boat 80-90% of the time, he reported.
The Southworth/Vashon/Fauntleroy triangle route also carries priority status since the multi-stop trip includes Vashon Island. “Those living on Vashon don’t have much choice but to take a Washington state ferry, so it does raise the priority of the Southworth/Vashon/Fauntleroy route,” he said.
There is no timetable of when the triangle route will return to three-boat service, the spokesman said. Of all Kitsap County-based ferry sailings, the Seattle-Bremerton run has been hit the hardest.
“The Seattle-Bremerton run has borne the brunt of this,” Sterling said. “As far as reduced sailings go, Bremerton has seen the biggest cut. It was reduced to one-boat service [from two] since the start of the pandemic, which cut sailings in half,” Sterling said.
“There are some reasons for this – demand on the Bremerton route dropped significantly during the pandemic. And the Bremerton fast ferry has provided another way for people to get downtown.”
Also contributing to reduced ridership on the downtown route is that many Seattle companies have allowed employees to work remotely from home, eliminating the need to commute to work, he said. Normally, the state ferries carry between 24-25 million people annually on 23 vessels. That makes the WSF system the largest fleet of ferries in the United States, Sterling noted.