Ferry system operating at 'bare minimum' as unexpected damage takes toll on aging fleet

Throughout the summer, a lack of crew caused delays and cancelations across Washington’s ferry system.

There is a growing fear within Washington State Ferries that the short-term problem will overshadow the looming issue of vessel reliability—more specifically, a lack of ships.

An email was sent to a number of legislators this week, warning that the smallest vessel in WSF’s fleet would begin running the Edmonds-Kingston route this week. The Salish, which carries 64 vehicles, is taking the spot of a vessel that would traditionally carry roughly 200 vehicles per trip.

"We understand those drivers’ frustration, but literally have no other options," wrote John Vezina, WSF’s planning director.

A few years ago, WSF had a fleet of 24 vessels. The number has shrunk to 21, and with a number of vehicles out for maintenance – only 15 vessels are currently operable, or what Vezina called "the bare minimum."

As ridership climbed following the peak of the pandemic, crews were stretched thin. A single sick call could throw off a sailing. These days both training and recruiting programs are underway, meaning it’s likely that staffing issues will be fixed over the next 12–18 months.

"It’s untenable," said Redge Campbell, who takes a trip on the ferry once or twice a week. "It just feels like everything is, uh, diminishing as far as the service of the ferry system."

WSF is aware that passengers are frustrated, but there is a belief that things will improve after the efforts of the past year.

"Things are stretched thin," said Ian Sterling with WSF. "The crewing, that will get fixed. The vessels, that’s a longer-term issue that we’ll have to deal with over the next decade or so. Decisions made, at this point—really, decades ago, to not build boats—has now come back to bite us and customers. It’s time to build boats again."

Back in 2019, the state was planning for a new hybrid-electric vessel to join the fleet in a matter of years. There were public events celebrating a partnership, but now in 2023, the state is seeking a new builder. The Legislature has even lifted restrictions that would have kept construction in Washington, as getting a commitment has been difficult.

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In the meantime, the legislature has ordered WSF to look into whether purchasing a used vessel could be a stopgap measure to add extra reliability to the system. Though, given federal restrictions that ferries traveling within the U.S. must be American-built used ships are often hard to find. If one is located, the Legislature would have to approve the purchase before any modifications that may be necessary, not to mention training for WSF mariners to operate the vessel.

If there is a silver lining, it’s that the latest blow came as the summer travel season winded down.

The Walla Walla, which carries 188 vehicles, began vibrating during a recent run between Seattle and Bainbridge Island. It was discovered that a portion of its propellor broke off. The vessel should be back in service in two to four weeks.

The other vessels that are currently out of service include the Chelan, Wenatchee, Yakima, Tillikum and Tokitae. The Wenatchee is undergoing an upgrade which will turn it into a hybrid ferry, while the Tillikum is undergoing maintenance to extend its life expectancy after operating four years beyond its initial planned 60-year run.

In the coming months, WSF will rely on its maintenance team to keep vessels operating, while attention turns to finding a builder that can begin work on the next generation of vessels.