As the Sidney, BC, Canada to San Juan ferry service approaches its 100th anniversary, it will continue to be suspended. Sailing was initially halted when borders closed during the pandemic but is now struggling to return due to staffing issues.
“We don’t necessarily have a fixed schedule,” said Ian Sterling, Washington State Ferries communications director. “It’s all about how quickly we can hire and train people. We are already doing that.”
Jim Corenman, chairman of the San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee, said the run has not been halted, although it has been a common misconception. Only the legislature can do this, and it suggests permanence.
The international ferry has always been seasonal, running from spring to summer. While this course operated only through WSF, not BC ferries. Sidney hires Washington State to route the route through the city’s international terminal in Tulista Park.
So far, Sterling said it could take around four months, but he’s reluctant to put a firm timeline on it as it could be restored either sooner or later than expected.
WSF isn’t the only one having staffing issues. BC Ferries are in the same boat, according to Deborah Marshall, executive director of public affairs at British Columbia Ferry Services Inc.
“It’s a combination of the Omicron variant’s potential to affect staff well-being, the regular cold and flu season, severe winter storms, vaccination policies that have reduced crew availability, and the global shortage of professional seafarers who can take it make it difficult to hire replacement staff. ” She said.
In a press release from Sydney Mayor Cliff McNeil-Smith, he stated that the line was unlikely to return to service in the summer.
“It is disappointing that this vital link between the Peninsula and the United States continues to be disrupted. The city looked forward to celebrating the 100th anniversary of ferry service this year with the community of Anacortes, which has been a sister city to Sydney since 1996,” McNeil-Smith said in his press release. “We recognize that labor shortages affect many services and organizations. We remain committed to this ferry route and have heard the same commitment from Washington State Ferries. We are optimistic that the service will return post-pandemic.”
Smith told the Journal that the ferry has long supported tourism and contributed to the economy in both the US and Canada, but he’s aware it’s supported more than just that.
“We know that for individuals who travel, it was also a connection for families and friends across the border,” he said.
While it’s an important route between the islands and Canada, Sterling said it’s one of the lowest priorities in restoring the ferry schedule.
“If you live on a real island, there is no way to drive in or out. Especially if you deliver, if you bring trucks full of groceries or something like that to and from the islands. Really, Washington State Ferries is your lifeline for that,” Sterling said. “So they were restored first, and then we move on to Seattle, Bainbridge, and then on down the list.”
Corenman said the priority of returning to full capacity, from highest to lowest, is: Anacortes/San Juan Islands, Seattle/Bainbridge Island, Mukilteo/Clinton, Edmonds/Kingston, Fauntleroy/Vashon Island/Southworth, Seattle/Bremerton, Port Townsend/Coupeville, Anacortes/Sidney BC.
According to Sterling, the Chelan is the only boat capable of navigating the Sydney route as it is the only vessel that is a SOLES boat. SOLES stands for Safety of Life at Sea and means that the ship has additional safety equipment required for international voyages. Sterling added that Chelan has recently had maintenance and is in good shape.
“We look forward to the day when we can sail to Canada again,” Sterling said. “Hopefully that gets closer quickly. Once we’ve restored service up and down, that’s the next step.”