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Washington State Ferries running on alternate schedules ‘until further notice’ during its busiest season

Washington State Ferries said it hired dozens of new crewmembers, but it takes time to train new employees for the highly technical job.

EDMONDS, Wash. — Washington State Ferries (WSF) is running on alternate schedules "until further notice" this summer due to crew shortages that have worsened since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The schedule changes come as WSF prepares for the busiest time of year for ferry ridership.

Craig Birkby rides the ferry every week from Edmonds to Kingston.

“During the summertime, I do have some beehives over at Kingston and live here in Edmonds, and so I travel over there to check on the bees,” Birkby explained.

While there’s been quite a lot of buzz around reduced ferry schedules this summer, Birkby still enjoys his weekly rides.

“It's so relaxing," Birkby said. "It's a great, great way to spend a little trip and to spend the time."

For others, like the Carrions, riding a ferry comes once in a blue moon.

“I don't know what the normal schedule is, but it was every hour,” said Christina Carrion. “It kind of sucked because we could not get out early.”

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Carrion dropped her four sons off at the Edmonds-Kingston ferry terminal for them to ride the boat to meet a family friend on the other side of the Sound.

“Thank you for the ferry because or else we would have had to drive all the way up the peninsula, then come all the way back down,” she said.

They are just one family of many ramping up ferry ridership this summer.

“Washington State Ferries carries about 50% more people in the summertime months than it does in the wintertime months in a typical year. So, this is really our Super Bowl,” explained WSF Public Information Officer Ian Sterling.

The alternate schedules are like playing the big game without half your starting lineup.

“We simply don't have the people to operate the vessels as often as we would like to,” Sterling said.

There is a worldwide merchant mariner shortage.

“There was a shortage going into the pandemic, and it's been exacerbated coming out of it,” explained Sterling.

Sterling said WSF has hired dozens of new crewmembers, but it takes time to train new employees for the highly technical job.

“Now we're rebuilding our schedule back to where it was pre-pandemic, but it's going to take some time and likely months before everything is back to, you know, more normal times,” Sterling said.

WSF said the route changes would lead to "more predictable and reliable service systemwide" for customers. The agency said it plans to notify people when full service can temporarily be restored to a particular route.

Since active schedules may change daily, WSF urged customers to check the online schedule page and monitor travel alert bulletins on the agency’s website for the latest route information.

As of July 11, WSF said the following routes are running restored summer schedules:

WSF said it has been able to restore some of the busiest routes.

“A lot of people take the San Juan Islands, you know, from Anacortes route, especially during the holidays or the summertime,” Sterling said. “That's been restored to basically pre-pandemic service levels.”

Other routes, like the Edmonds-Kingston route, will take longer to restore.

“This route here, Edmonds-Kingston, is the next to be scheduled to return to two boat service,” said Sterling. “Right now, what we've done is cut that back to one [vessel]. We essentially guarantee that there's always going to be one-boat service. We'd like to get back to two, right? Because that doubles the capacity essentially cuts down on those wait times."

Birkby and Carrion said they are just glad they have the option to ride instead of drive.

“It's not ideal, but it's what we have. So we might as well just go with it and enjoy it,” Birkby said.

“At least there's something that connects the two peninsulas,” said Carrion.

WSF advised riders to always check the schedule before heading to the ferry terminal. If WSF can get enough crew lined up, it will sometimes add a boat and extra sailings to the schedule.

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