Evening sailing cancellations aboard the Skeena Queen will only last until Thursday and will be resolved in time for the long weekend.
In a service update Monday, BC Ferries stated that the four evening sailings between Fulford Harbour and Swartz Bay will be cancelled up to and including July 28. By the Friday of the long weekend, July 29, the full sailing schedule will be back to normal.
The cancelled sailings are 5:50 and 7:50 p.m. from Fulford Harbour and 7 and 9 p.m. from Swartz Bay. A 48-person water taxi had been sourced and will be running on the regular sailing schedule.
On the Swartz Bay side, the water taxi will run from the Government dock adjacent to the terminal, a circa 10 minute walk from the foot passenger booths with ferry personnel available to provide directions. Free parking at Swartz Bay is available, provided customers leave their licence plate number with the ticket agent.
On the Salt Spring side, bus service by BC Transit will be available for arriving foot passengers at the scheduled arrival time.
The alternate route from Crofton was also advertised in the service notice.
One Twitter user asked whether they could take their dog home on the water taxi. A representative of the ferry corporation replied that water taxis are for foot passengers only.
Salt Spring Island Chamber of Commerce president Darryl Martin stated via email that the cancellations make doing business on the island even harder for businesses already impacted by widespread pandemic supply chain disruptions.
“Nearly everything – groceries, medicine, lumber, raw materials for our artisans, etcetera – comes by ferry,” he stated.
Martin said he’s heard also from one accommodation provider who reportedly received “a ton of cancellations” of future bookings due to the ferry uncertainty.
The cancelled Fulford – Swartz Bay evening sailings came less than a week after a spate of cancellations left Salt Spring with very few ferry options on Sunday, July 17. Afternoon and evening sailings from Vesuvius Bay and Fulford were serviced by water taxi only that day, and the final two sailings on the Tsawwassen – Long Harbour route were also cancelled.
The cancellations not only impacted businesses but also disrupted visitors and residents and entailed loss of income for some workers who commute to the island Martin stated. He added that accomodation providers were a key part of ensuring people stranded by last week’s cancellations had a place to stay.
Salt Spring wasn’t the only community affected, with 18 sailings on the two-ferry run between Nanaimo and Gabriola Island and all afternoon sailings between Mill Bay and Brentwood Bay cancelled last Thursday due to crewing issues.
The ferry corporation has cited a rise in absenteeism as one of the reasons for crew shortages. This number has gone from the normal six to now 11 per cent, or 400 to 500 full time employees off on any given day during the COVID-19 pandemic period, according to spokesperson Deborah Marshall.
This explanation did not sit well with Eric McNeely, president of the BC Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union. He called it a “particularly offensive jab at a work force that consistently comes in on day of rest to ensure their friends, family and travellers can move about.”
He added, “Blaming a workforce for management decisions appears to be an effort at deflection. A year ago [BC Ferries] claimed they had the staff, then there was a global shortage of mariners, then there was a vaccine mandate, then there was more retirements than expected, then there was a back- logged healthcare system, and now it is employee absenteeism.”
“My mom used to tell me, ‘Take responsibility for your actions.’ And when people would rather be unemployed than work for BC Ferries, the issue is not resolved by blaming the remaining workforce attendance numbers. Responsibility needs to [be] owned by those with the authority and ability to make the changes needed for a reliable ferry system that serves all British Columbians.”
The ferry corporation has hired or re-hired 1,000 people since January, which includes the return of around 100 employees who were placed on leave under a now-scrapped vaccination policy. Yet the combination of a global skilled mariner shortage, a variety of COVID-19 pandemic impacts as well as other concerns including cost of living increases, BC Ferries’ on-call hiring policy and the Southern Gulf Islands’ housing crisis are all at play in continued crew shortages.
In other ferry news, the ferry corporation fired CEO Mark Collins Friday. He had been in the role since 2017 and with BC Ferries since 2004.
“Like many organizations, BC Ferries has faced recent staffing shortages, service interruptions and COVID-related challenges. There are no quick fixes to these systemic challenges, but as a board we believe it is time for renewal, fresh ideas and a renewed commitment to the highest standards of customer service, safety and affordability,” said new board chair Joy MacPhail, a longtime member of the provincial NDP, former MLA and cabinet minister who took on the role at the end of June after her role as ICBC board chair.
Current vice president and chief financial officer Jill Sharland has been appointed interim CEO and Collins has been offered a severance according to his contract terms, the amount of which has not yet been made public.
The chamber has previously made requests for improved service and will be pressing the new leadership at BC Ferries and the province to act, Martin noted.
“We need greater reliability on ferries and this means a more active role for the government to ensure that the root causes of ferry disruptions are addressed,” he stated. “These include the availability of affordable housing for ferry workers, plus incentives to get people back into the workforce.”
Amidst cancellations, the chamber worked to get the word out that people can still ride a water taxi to Salt Spring and visit the island on foot and on transit to catch the Saturday market, for example. All visitors should also be signed up for the BC Ferries notification service, he added.