Restrictions, repairs to test Washington State Ferries system Memorial Day weekend

Washington's state ferry system usually is hammered during holiday weekends, but the coming Memorial Day could see delays longer than most might remember.  

One of the system’s largest boats is out of commission. Pair that crisis with pandemic-related crew shortages, six routes will be running under capacity during the weekend holiday rush. Caught in the middle is Whidbey Island where business owners hope for big crowds to make up for a lost 2020 summer season. 

Pushing into keystone harbor, the vessel Kennewick maneuvered into Whidbey Island from Port Townsend. 

"We were blessed to be here part of the island," said Callen’s Restaurant owner Michael Weeks. 

Besides a state park, Weeks’ restaurant welcomes newcomers and sends off travelers delayed by a ferry system under pressure, just as the summer holiday season opens.

"We have people telling us they arrive early for the ferry so they can come across the street and have a meal," Weeks said. 

Lately, his customers have the extra time because the Coupeville-Port Townsend route has been reduced to a single boat between both locations. The ferry system has also attempted to address the gap in service ever since one of the newest vessels was knocked offline due to an engine fire.

Each vessel among the state’s active fleet not under maintenance or repair is sailing Puget Sound. But, many of the boats cut normal capacity for multiple routes. Destinations from Bainbridge Island, Bremerton, Mukilteo, Vashon Island and San Juan Island are all operating below normal traffic thresholds. In addition, pandemic restrictions and crews quarantining or recovering from the virus impacts service across the system.

"Two-hour waits at a ferry, maybe longer, at sometimes is going to impact us," said Coupeville Chamber of Commerce Director Lynda Eccles. 

Deeper into Whidbey Island in Coupeville, time seems to slow down. But all the delays and limitations on the ferry system leave vacationers and residents feeling the squeeze.

"It impacts tourism and our economy," said Eccles.

The agency suggests vacationers consider early morning or late evening boats to avoid lengthy delays. Until boats under repair and maintenance return to service, and crews can get back to work, many drivers will have to learn to wait for the next boat.

"We made it on time," said traveler Ron Hines, who arrived at the ferry terminal in time to learn he would have to wait for the next sailing. "Obviously we were the first for the next one, but the last ones that didn’t make it."

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