This story originally aired and was published on KNKX on Oct. 17, 2023.
San Juan Islanders are used to going to the mainland for doctors’ visits, though it often means spending an eight-hour day traveling over for a 15-minute appointment.
Ferry cancellations can make that into as much as a 21-hour day, according to Dr. Stacie Nordrum. That’s why, as the islands’ only audiologist for the last 16 years, she takes the ferry to her patients. Some islands she can only get to once a month, so she packs her day with appointments and boards the ferry with her little folding trolley, filled to the brim with hearing aids and specialized tools.
Nordrum is one of many working people in the San Juans who rely on the ferry for their livelihoods. She’s created a list of everyone she’s gotten to know in line for a ferry: A propane delivery man, a chimney repairman, an electrician, a traveling physical therapist, an occupational therapist, two special education coordinators, a school psychologist, a garage door repairman, a septic specialist, a beer delivery man, nurses, hospice workers, caregivers, a couple accountants, a domestic violence support advocate, ministers, FedEx workers, county workers, veterinarians and a farrier.
All of these peoples’ work and lives were frequently disrupted this summer. The Washington State Ferries system canceled more than 1,100 sailings between mid-June and late September — the largest chunk of those on routes in the San Juan Islands.
Data from the state shows during this year’s summer season, one out of every 20 sailings to, or between, the islands was canceled. That’s more than a third of the 1,145 cancellations statewide, when San Juan ferry routes made up less than a fifth of overall scheduled sailings.
WSF is down several boats. Due to some planned and unplanned maintenance, there are 15 vessels currently sailing. That’s the minimum needed to run reduced service, according to John Vezina, a director at the agency.
They’re also facing the same maritime labor shortage other states and nations are. Some workers have held off on their retirement; others have foregone vacations or days off to fill in.
They’re dealing with increasingly frustrated riders, Vezina said. On Oct. 13, two people were arrested in the Friday Harbor ferry line after allegedly spouting racial epithets and threatening to kill staff.
“We’ve had physical assaults lately,” Vezina said. “We have verbal assaults all the time.”
When ferries are canceled
One reason the San Juan Islands see the most cancellations: whereas islands down south usually have a few routes that simply go back and forth from the mainland, ferries here hopscotch from island to island. If the Anacortes to San Juan ferry is canceled, that could mean cascading cancellations of the San Juan to Shaw and Shaw to Orcas ferries as well.
They’re also among the few islands in the state where there are no highways off-island. When riders can’t afford private flights, each cancellation still means dozens of islanders are stranded on the mainland or an island.
Take a Wednesday in September, at the end of the summer sailing season, when Nordrum had a monthly trip to Lopez Island scheduled. She had a packed day that included fitting one man for free, refurbished hearing aids he wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise.
“I pull up, and (the ferry worker) just shakes her head, like ‘girl, I’m so sorry,'” Nordrum said.
The next day, her ferry trip to Orcas Island was also canceled. Two days later, she went to the mainland to watch her daughter’s soccer game, and on the way back, spent 10 hours in line at Anacortes ferry terminal, waiting for a vessel with room for her car to get home.
During that wait, she watched someone right in front of her cut the line and sneak onto a ship that was leaving. It was one of her neighbors, she said.
“That was the worst,” Nordrum said. “I feel victimized by the system and ineptitude, and then now I feel like a victim of my neighbor. That’s so awful.”
— Reported by Scott Greenstone / KNKX Public Radio
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