Return date of WSF Sidney ferry route remains uncertain

As the Sidney, B.C. Canada to San Juan ferry route approaches its 100th anniversary, it continues to be placed on hold. The sailing was first discontinued when borders closed during the pandemic, but now it struggles to come back due to staffing issues.

“We don’t necessarily have a firm timeline,” said Washington State Ferries Communication director Ian Sterling. “It’s just about how fast we can get people hired and trained. We’re already doing that.”

Jim Corenman, San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee chair, said the run is not axed, however, although that has been a common misconception. Only legislature can do so and it suggests permanence.

The international ferry has always been seasonal, running from spring through the summer. This course only operated through WSF, not B.C. ferries. Sidney contracts Washington state to run the route through the municipal-owned international terminal at Tulista Park in B.C.

Sterling said it could take approximately four months to be up and running again, but he is hesitant to set a firm timeline as it could be restored sooner or later than expected.

WSF is not the only entity experiencing staffing issues. According to Deborah Marshall, the Executive Director of Public Affairs for British Columbia Ferry Services Inc., B.C. Ferries is in the same boat.

“It is a combination including the Omicron variant’s potential to impact employee wellness, regular cold and flu season, severe winter storms, vaccination policies that have reduced crew availability, and the global shortage of professional mariners that are making it difficult to hire replacement staff,” she said.

In a press release from the Mayor of Sidney Cliff McNeil-Smith, he stated that it is unlikely the route will resume service this summer.

“It is disappointing that this important connection between the Peninsula and the United States will continue to be suspended. The town was looking forward to celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the ferry service this year with the community of Anacortes, which has been a Sister City to Sidney since 1996,” McNeil-Smith stated in his press release. “We recognize that labor shortages are impacting many services and organizations. We remain committed to this ferry route and have heard the same commitment echoed by Washington State Ferries. We are optimistic that the service will return as we emerge from the pandemic.”

Smith told the Journal that the ferry has long supported tourism and contributed to the economy for both the U.S. and Canada, but he is aware that it has supported more than just that.

“We know that for individuals traveling, it has been a connection for families and friends across the border as well,” he said.

According to Sterling, although this is an important route bridging the islands and Canada, it is one of the lowest of priorities when it comes to restoring the ferry schedule.

“If you live on a true island, there’s not any way you can drive on or off. Especially if you’re delivering, if you’re taking semi-trucks full of groceries or that type of thing on and off the islands. Really, Washington State Ferries is your lifeline for that,” Sterling said. “So that’s why they got restored first, and then we’ll move on to Seattle, Bainbridge and then down the list.”

Corenman said the priority of returning sailings to full capacity from highest to least is: Anacortes/San Juan Islands, Seattle/Bainbridge Island, Mukilteo/Clinton, Edmonds/Kingston, Fauntleroy/Vashon Island/Southworth, Seattle/Bremerton, Port Townsend/Coupeville, Anacortes/Sidney BC.

The Chelan is the only boat that is capable of running the Sydney route, according to Sterling, since it is the only vessel that is a SOLES (Safety of Life at Sea) boat, which means that the ship has additional safety equipment required for international travel. Sterling added that the Chelan recently had maintenance done and is in good shape.

“We look forward to the day when we’re able to sail back into Canada,” Sterling said. “Hopefully, that’s approaching quickly. Once we can get service restored up and down the sound, it’ll be the next step.”