Seattle TV reporters tried to tie Washington State Ferries’
current boat shortage to crewing issues during a conference call
with interim director George Capacci. While staffing has been a
problem, as recently as Tuesday, the two are unrelated.
Two boats are in dry dock undergoing scheduled maintenance. The 124-Kitsap is getting a paint job and the 144-car Yakima having drive motor work. The jobs were planned a long time ago, and won’t be completed until late September.
WSF schedules more maintenance during winter, when business is slower, but it can’t all be completed without spreading into summer. Having two boats in planned maintenance this time of year is normal, said ferries spokeswoman Marta Coursey.
What wasn’t expected was for two of the system’s largest vessels to break down. Ferry officials had been keeping an eye on a Wenatchee stern tube seal while searching for a dry dock. They had to go to Vancouver, B.C., to find one, and towed the boat there Monday evening. The very next day, on a trip from Seattle to Bainbridge Island, the Tacoma lost power. Capacci said Thursday they don’t know yet what happened, except that it’s an electrical problem, and he hopes to have a repair plan next week.
“None of our four current challenges are because of lack of crews,” Capacci said. ” … These are operational issues with the maintenance of the vessels that have caused these shortages.”
So does the system have enough money to properly maintain the boats, a reporter asked.
There is a backlog of deferred vessel maintenance, but the Coast Guard wouldn’t allow the boats to sail if they weren’t safe, Capacci said.
Capacci and Coursey characterized the situation as “unprecedented,” and urged riders to sign up for alerts so they could stay informed. Those were the themes.
The Wenatchee is expected to return Friday afternoon, but ferries officials didn’t think they could wait that long to restore a second boat to the Edmonds-Kingston route. They moved the 124-car Chelan down from the Anacortes-Sidney, B.C. route at noon. That wasn’t popular with Anacortes Chamber of Commerce director Stephanie Hamilton, who called this the town’s biggest weekend.
Capacci said officials looked at reservations booked from Canada and weighed them against 5,500 vehicles the Edmonds-Kingston route carries every day. And, he added, it’s better to be without the Chelan Thursday and Friday and get it back for the weekend.
A technicality came up Tuesday when the Walla Walla was providing single-boat service to Bainbridge. Normally it’s allowed to carry 1,800 passengers, but it was limited to 600 seats at a time they were needed the most. That’s the number its life rafts can hold, and by regulation the maximum number of people the ferry can carry without another boat on the route to help in emergencies.
Capt. John Dwyer, Coast Guard chief of marine inspection in Seattle, happened to be in the WSF operations center when the Tacoma stalled and gave permission to load 1,200 people because the Sealth was nearby on the Bremerton route and could help rescue riders. The word never got to the boat or terminal, where customers were quite upset.
“The loop didn’t get completed,” Capacci said. “The communication apparently didn’t get to the right person at the right time. I’m very sorry about that.”
Staffing problems on the Fauntleroy-Vashon Island-Southworth route Tuesday morning were only indirectly tied to boat problems. The connection was the boat — Evergreen State — being there because of the breakdowns. It was brought out of retirement to fill in for the Sealth and keep the route at three boats. But dispatchers couldn’t find a mate until 10 a.m., so it remained idle for five hours.
Capacci sidestepped the issue Thursday, but spoke generally.
“There’s a high demand for crews in the summer, but I think we’re meeting those targets of having those crews available,” he said.
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