Normal ferry service returns to island after disastrous holiday

Ferry service on the south end of Vashon resumed on Saturday, restoring normal service to the island after what was for many a difficult week for travel.

Throughout the week, islanders expressed relief at the news that the Chetzemoka’s captain is expected to recover after he experienced a medical emergency while on board on Christmas Eve, causing extensive damage to the Point Defiance dock. At the same time, many islanders expressed long-simmering frustrations with Washington State Ferries (WSF), after hundreds of people had lengthy waits to get home on Christmas Eve. The holiday delays were in part because of the serious nature of the incident at the south end, but also because one of the vessels on the triangle route did not have adequate crew to sail that same evening.

Ian Sterling, who heads WSF’s communications team, spoke to the missed sailings and resulting frustration.

“Any time you miss a sailing because of lack of crew, there is no excuse for it,” he said. “The fact that it happens is unacceptable, and it undoes a lot of your hard work.”

Greg Beardsley, the longtime head of Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee, also weighed in on the separate, but related, situations with a different perspective.

The south end was a tragic accident that was really a Christmas miracle. It could have been really bad,” he said, adding that everyone did their jobs to assist the captain and control the vessel. But he noted that he believed the triangle route travellers would have faced a difficult situation that evening regardless, as WSF was relying on a regular fall Saturday schedule, not a peak schedule, on a heavy travel day: Christmas Eve and a Seahawks game at CenturyLink Field.

“It (the south-end incident) did impact Fauntleroy and Southworth, but it was not the cause of the fiasco,” he said. “Ferries had an inadequate schedule to start with.”

Sterling initially spoke about both incidents from his home over the Christmas holiday weekend and indicated he would learn more and provide additional information when he returned to the office. Last week he corrected some of what he first said and elaborated on it.

Unlike what was provided in an initial report from WSF, the worker who called in sick on the north end did so several hours ahead of time, Sterling said. WSF dispatchers then made calls to replace the person, and thought they had done so, but the crew member they had found was not credentialed to use a respirator in case of fire, so the boat was unable to sail, per Coast Guard rules. Dispatchers then tried to find a different replacement crew member — and did so — but the person lives in Anacortes, and the travel time would have been too long to be of much use. In the end, Sterling said, WSF kept a crew member for the shift maximum of 12 hours so that just one boat was serving the island from about 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

“Had we not held someone over … the time the route was down to just one boat would have been several hours longer,” he said.

Once both boats on the north end were running, he said that WSF chose to move the greatest numbers of people and focused on moving people between Fauntleroy and Vashon, but some people reported travel times as long as five hours to get to the island on the holiday night.

“Obviously, the medical emergency compounded the problem immensely,” Sterling added.

Some islanders have asked why the Chetzemoka crew was not dispatched to assist. He noted that the crew had to deal with the urgent medical need and the disabled dock, take the passengers back to Vashon to disembark and complete additional required tasks, which all took some time — and prevented that option from being a part of the solution. He added that one of the Chetzemoka staff members filled in on Christmas Day for someone else dealing with an urgent medical situation, allowing that schedule to remain on track.

The Chetzemoka itself was not moved to help on the route, he said, because that boat does not fit well at other docks and best serves the Port Townsend-Coupeville and Point Defiance-Tahlequah routes. Moving the vessel, he said, would “cause as many problems as it would solve.”

WSF did not bring an additional boat to the triangle run to compensate for the south-end’s closure because while traffic numbers were higher than during a typical holiday week, Sterling said ferry officials were not seeing extended, long waits. That appeared to the be the case much of the time, except for Friday, when many travelers experienced waits and delayed boats from early afternoon into the evening.

Initially, Sterling said that WSF had reduced the number of cancelled sailings because of lack of crew by about 70 percent in the 26 months since Lynne Griffith was brought on to lead the ferry system. Last week, he provided the numbers themselves. He said that in the 26 months before she came on, there were 332 such cancellations system-wide, and in the 26 months after she began her position, there were 103.

“It is a pretty drastic reduction,” he said. “But Lynne is not happy about this. She realizes this messed with hundreds and hundreds of customers on an important day.”

Overall, he added, this year through November across the WSF system, 5 percent of cancelled sailings were because of lack of crew, while 30 percent were due to tides and weather and 40 percent were because of terminal or vessel issues. In all, he added, there were ß149,530 sailings scheduled and 148,990, or 99.6 percent, were completed.

As for the south end, repairs took longer than anticipated, causing long commutes last week for those who travel between Vashon and Tacoma or points beyond. Vanessa VanGilder, who works at Fair Isle Animal Clinic, welcomed the news of the boat’s return Saturday, saying she lives in Puyallup, and the commute to Vashon last week put nearly 400 miles on her car, double the usual amount.

Vashon’s Chad Widmer, a biologist at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, said his commute got considerably longer as well, taking about one and a half hours in the morning and two and half to three hours in the evening.

He expressed equanimity about his longer travels, chalking up the situation to part of living on the island and keeping the cause of the delay in mind.

“What is really important to me is that the captain is going to be OK,” he said.

He noted that on his breaks at work, sometimes he would walk down to the dock, where he said it was disconcerting to see the apron sitting sideways and out of the water. He added that the project required that a crane be brought in on a barge — and a host of workers.

“Watching them work, they have a small army of people working on that thing,” he said.

The state’s Department of Transportation blog followed some of the progress of the project, which officials have indicated was complicated and that the final stage required coordination among WSF’s terminal engineering staff, Eagle Harbor welding specialists and outside contractors to provide crane services and welding inspections.

On Friday night, the project was completed, and ferry alerts went out shortly before 10 p.m. indicating service would resume early Saturday morning with a pre-dawn trip from Point Defiance to Tahlequah — an announcement many met with enthusiasm.