September 2, 2021
No new reservations, for now: Living and working around ferry delays, cancellations in the San Juans
Heather Spaulding

Washington State Ferries passengers enjoy a last look at the San Juan Islands as the Samish heads toward Anacortes on a summer evening. Peak-season travel among the islands has been disrupted this year by schedule delays and even cancellations as ferry employees, managers and riders continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. (Amy Nelson photo © 2021)

September 2, 2021
No new reservations, for now: Living and working around ferry delays, cancellations in the San Juans
Heather Spaulding

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The iconic white and green Washington State Ferries are essential to San Juan County islanders for transporting food, medical supplies, housing materials and more — including residents themselves and the tourists and visitors who support a large part of the county’s economy. But this year’s peak-season summer ferry sailing schedule has been plagued by delayed and canceled sailings, some due to a shortage of available Coast Guard-documented crew and some to mechanical problems.

Cancellations and delays have affected islanders and their businesses countywide in varying degrees. 

For the long weekend, things are not looking much brighter. WSF announced on Aug. 31 that no more vehicle reservations would be accepted over the highly traveled Labor Day weekend “due to the possibility of disrupted sailing from a lack of crew.”

“We are anticipating disruptions over the weekend due to staffing issues,” said Ian Sterling, WSF public information officer, adding that there has been a significant outbreak of COVID among the staff in some locations, and rumors of protests that hopefully will not come to fruition.

Sterling noted that the crew does much more than direct cars on and off the boats. Ferry workers also have CPR and first aid training, as well training in firefighting and other safety skills.

WSF are not the only ones having difficulty finding mariners. That has been a problem globally for decades. British Columbia ferries are also understaffed, as are private shipping companies. Washington state often is out bid by other companies, Sterling said; however, one thing the state can offer is for the sailors to return home each night.

Those in the wake of the service disruptions are left cleaning up the mess. 

Adventure or frustration?

With no more reservations being taken for Labor Day weekend travel to the San Juans, waiting for the boat at the Anacortes dock will be a more uncertain prospect.

“There has been a range in frustration” said John Cox, owner of the historic Orcas Hotel. “Some guests feel like it is part of the adventure of visiting an island, others get stressed and are afraid they have been stranded.” The hotel is only steps away from the Orcas ferry landing, and he and his staff have seen firsthand what happens when ferries are delayed or a sailing is canceled.

“Staff are the first ones to hear about it. Businesses and ferry workers are really on the front lines,” Cox said, adding that he and his employees have coffee with the mariners daily and see how tough the job can be. 

Ravenhill Construction is based on San Juan Island and keeps its projects local, which has kept headaches from ferry cancellations to a minimum, according to co-owner Credence Ross. 

“It’s just too much of a hassle going to the other islands,” Ross said. The company had tried to hire people from off island from both the mainland and other islands, but that did not work out due to transportation and housing issues. 

“As far as cancellations this summer, we haven’t been too impacted,” Ross said. However, framing materials once were a week late due to cancellations, and he has had some issues with supplies and subcontractors getting to locations. In one case, Ross had arranged for a client drive from Seattle to meet with him, only to find that ferry sailing had been canceled and there was no way to reach Friday Harbor in time. The client turned around and drove home. 

“Overall, the cancellations have not impacted Ravenhill as much as it could have. However, it affects us all personally,” Ross said.

Watch that website

Julie Duncan, Lopez Islander Resort and Marina employee, is concerned that with possible reduced ferry service and threats of cancellations over the long weekend, guests will end up traveling across the country or driving from Seattle only to find they are unable to reach their destination. 

“We have not had anyone cancel their stay yet, but I have been telling everyone to keep an eye on the ferry website so they know what the situation is,” Duncan said. 

The Lopez Islander Resort and Marina has experienced some delivery interruptions, according to Duncan, and their delivery driver has expressed concern about being able to return to Anacortes.

Jenny Pederson, owner of Darvill’s Book Store in Eastsound, said that cancellations did not seem to affect the bookstore much, but she has had to reschedule off island trips, including a medical appointment.

Getting to work

At Friday Harbor Drug — which opened its doors over a hundred years ago and remains the only pharmacy on San Juan Island — cancellations have not impacted medical supply. “We usually have a good supply anyway,” pharmacist Josh Matlock said.

The issue the pharmacy has had, however, is ensuring pharmacists can get to work.

“We have a few pharmacists that commute from other islands or the mainland,” Matlock said. There were a couple of instances when a pharmacist might not have been on duty due to ferry cancellations and a few times when employees thought they might not be able to make it home after their shift. 

At the Toy Box in Friday Harbor, customers have been generally happy, store owner Nancy Buechner said: not many are grumpy in a toy shop. Her business hasn’t been impacted much by ferry cancellations, but the situation has affected some business associates. A meeting with her Mount Vernon- based bookkeepers was postponed after they were unable to get to Friday Harbor. 

Sunnyfield Farm, a 40-acre, family-run, goat dairy farm on Lopez has not faced any delivery interruptions due to the ferry service cancellations, although owner Andre Etermann was delayed in getting to the San Juan Island Farmers Market until half an hour before the market closed. Although he had a variety of goat cheese and milk to sell, Etermann didn’t panic. 

“Fortunately, our product is in such demand that I was able to offload it at the San Juan Island Co-op,” Etermann said. 

Etermann added that he is empathetic toward the ferry workers’ plight and hopes the issues can be resolved soon. 

Sterling noted that Labor Day is usually the end of the heavy tourist season. The hope, he said, is that the pressure from staffing issues will ease off during the slower fall and winter months, and by next spring, crew will be ready. COVID, however, has continued to crimp everyone’s plans.

“Things just are not normal right now, with the pandemic, and the staff has done an amazing job keeping things moving,” Sterling said.

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