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Restored ferry route brings relief to San Juan Islands

After two weeks of delays, the Anacortes-San Juan Islands ferry route was restored to full service this past Saturday.

The Yakima’s generator failed on July 16, and repairs could take up to three weeks. The Washington State Department of Transportation said on July 18 that the 144-car passenger ferry “will be replaced by another vessel as soon as possible,” but Kitsap, the only backup ferry in the 22 ferry fleet, was also out.

State ferries out of Anacortes were running on an emergency schedule. The morning boat to Sidney, British Columbia was cancelled to prioritize domestic travel, but passengers to the San Juan Islands were still urged to arrive 90 minutes to 2 hours early, even with a reservation. The ferries were not accepting new reservations for any San Juan Islands sailings. Passengers with existing reservations still had priority, but all other passengers were loaded on a first-come, first-serve basis.

With the Yakima and Kitsap both out-of-service, the route’s capacity was down 20 percent, when ridership is up 50 percent for the summer.

The situation drew criticism to the Washington State Ferries and WSDOT, with San Juan residents calling for relief boats for the route and new boats instead of continued maintenance.

The long wait times and uncertainty caused some tourists to cancel their trips to the San Juan Islands.

Friday Harbor’s San Juan Safaris reported dozens of cancelled whale watching trips, during the 90 days where they make 75 percent of their yearly revenue.

“Our maintenance people do an amazing job keeping vessels running for up to six decades,” said Ian Sterling, spokesperson for the Washington State Ferries. “As frustrating as it is when a vessel breaks down or we cancel sailings, it is relatively rare. Our reliability rating is the envy of many other transportation entities, currently at about 99-percent.”

Ferries in the 22 boat fleet operate over 20 hours a day, roughly 300 days a year, carrying 24 million passengers to 20 ports. The average age of the vessels is 30 years old. Seven vessels are between 40 and 60 years old.

Three new Olympic Class ferries have been built since 2014, one of which was put into service on the Anacortes-San Juan Islands route in 2015. A fourth ferry is scheduled to be completed in 2018.

Washington State Ferries had multiple teams working overtime to repair both out-of-service vessels. While the Kitsap had been repaired with a new engine, the Yakima will take at least another week or two to repair fully, according to Sterling.

When asked about additional or supplemental boats, Sterling said:

Additional or supplemental boats will depend on funding and be advised by our long-range plan which is in its early stages and will be built with input from communities and other stake holders. Ferry usage has reached 24-million passengers system-wide for the first time since before the recession. We’re not in record territory yet, but we’re getting close.

But with the Yakima still out-of-service for the next week or two, if another ferry breaks down, the fleet will once again be short a boat, leaving travelers in some areas of the Sound with few other transportation options.