New ferry hires up, new vessels delayed

As service remains influx due to lack of crew, locals are paying close attention to the Washington State Ferry Service.

Islanders made up approximately a third of the attendees at the WSF online town hall meeting on June 15. The most anticipated information was how recruitment is coming and if there is an estimated time frame for fully staffed vessels.

“We have hired 137 crew members since October,” said Steve Nevey, head of marine operations.

To entice new employees, WSF is now budgeted to hire for the year, rather than seasonally, a move that seems to have helped. Nevey cautioned, however, that more crew is still needed, and it will take until the summer of 2023 for some routes to return to normal.

Currently, there are 174 licensed deck crew members and a total of 200 are needed. That may not sound like many vacancies, however, Nevey explained that licensing can take six to eight months. This is true even if the employee already works in the maritime industry.

Jim Corenman, chair of the San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee, explained that in order to gain their pilotage, WSF must be able to draw a map from memory of all the ferry routes and terminals in Puget Sound.

Classes are currently in progress, Nevey said, and more are scheduled. To alleviate some of the stress and make getting the necessary licensing easier, the Washington state legislature has provided funding for WSF for a variety of new programs.

One new program allows the ferry service to sponsor employees who do not have the required funds for credentials. Another program assists parents with childcare.

The state historically has not provided WSF with enough funding, according to Patty Rubstello, Assistant Secretary of the Washington State Ferries, but legislators have funded the ferry system better this year. She thanked the legislators and 40th District Senator Liz Lovelett in particular for her role in passing a budget with additional ferry funds.

“But there is more to be done,” Rubstello said.

The ferry service is also lacking vessels. The fleet consists of 21 boats and an additional five are needed, especially since the Tillikum is in need of major repairs. Both the Yakima and Kaleetan need maintenance as well.

Under state law, WSF must contract with a boat building company in Washington state, according to Corenman, unless they cannot find anyone who will complete the project within five percent of the estimated cost.

In the past, WSF has contracted with a company called Vigor. It was contracted to design the new boats, which the company did. When it came time to build the boats, Vigor wanted more than what WSF offered. As a result, the ferry service is now shopping for a new builder. Corenman explained that the state uses a cost provided by a private contractor. If they are unable to find someone who comes within five percent of the state’s estimated cost, WSF can look at companies from other states, so one way or another, the boats will get built, Corenman said.

It does put the project behind schedule, however, and WSF now anticipates the five new boats will not be completed until the middle of 2031. The first boat should be complete in mid-2027, with one new vessel a year after that.

This means that WSF will also be requested additional funds from the legislature to keep the Tillikum running for at least another five years.

As a result of both crewing issues and the delay in new vessels, the Anacortes Sydney route is not expected to return until the summer of 2023 at the earliest, according to Corenman. He explained that after the Elwa was retired, the Chelan became the only boat certified for international travel. While the Chelan is in good shape, having a second boat available in case of emergencies is ideal. Once the new ferries arrive, one of the Olympic Class boats can be certified for backup.

In the meantime, Corenman encourages the community to continue being nice to the workers who show up. They are working hard, peak season is approaching and frustrations are high, he said.

“The good news is that ferries will be supporting training and helping the people who want to move up and advance their position,” Corenman said. “County Ferry Advisory Committees are encouraged with the direction they [WSF] are going, but we are also concerned it is going to take some time.”