Ferry cancellations cause chaos for travellers

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A spate of ferry sailing cancellations left Salt Spring virtually without ferry service for part of Sunday.

All 12 afternoon/evening Fulford Harbour-Swartz Bay (Route 4) sailings were cancelled, starting with the 1:50 p.m. from Fulford. Four Crofton-Vesuvius Bay (Route 6) evening sailings were also cancelled due to crew availability, except for the 10 p.m. final sailing from Crofton, which ran on schedule. The final two evening sailings between Tsawwassen and Long Harbour also did not run. 

Water taxis were brought in on routes 4 and 6 to transport foot passengers, with the Crofton-Vesuvius route serviced by a 10-person vessel and Fulford-Swartz Bay by a 45-person vessel. BC Ferries executive director of public affairs Deborah Marshall stated via email that as per her understanding, the water taxis were sufficient to move those who wanted to use this option to travel. 

“Yesterday could have been a lot worse, it was bad enough as it was,” said Salt Spring’s volunteer ferry advisory committee (FAC) chair Harold Swierenga, who visited the Fulford terminal Sunday afternoon to observe ferry crew assisting walk-on passengers and cyclists aboard the water taxi. “I think it was fairly well-handled.” 

BC Ferries stated that the decision to cancel the sailings came after they had exhausted all options to find crew, including looking for replacement workers and offering overtime pay.

Marshall confirmed that the crewing issue aboard one ship was COVID-19-related, yet did not have further details regarding the crew absent from the other two vessels. 

The crewing shortage “wasn’t centralized to just captains, there was deck, engineering issues as well, and that exacerbated a problem of short staff already,” said BC Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union president Eric McNeely. 

There is little flexibility when it comes to how many crew a vessel needs to sail with. Compared to ferry corporations in Washington State, for example, which are governed by local coast guard regulations that tend to be “a little bit more elastic,” Swierenga explained BC Ferries is governed by tight rules set by Transport Canada. 

“We certainly apologize to our customers for the inconvenience that was caused by these unforeseen cancellations yesterday,” Marshall stated, adding that less than one per cent of all BC Ferries’ sailings are cancelled due to crewing issues. 

While Sunday was characterized by Swierenga as a “perfect storm for Salt Spring” and by McNeely as “part Swiss cheese lining up,” both agree that the ferry staffing issue goes much deeper. 

On Salt Spring, all three ships that service the three terminals are home-ported on the island, where the labour pool is not huge. But Swierenga and McNeely both added that cancellations have been seen across the Gulf Islands as well as major mainland to Vancouver Island routes. 

Swierenga explained that staff hired during major ferry expansions in the late 1970s and early 1980s are now going into retirement. The ferry union estimates 900 people could retire in the next five years. 

Marshall noted BC Ferries has hired hundreds of new staff, as well as seeing around 100 of the employees on leave due to the now-scrapped COVID-19 staff vaccination policy coming back to active duty. McNeely noted over 1,000 people have been hired or re-hired since January. 

“We’re hopeful that will provide some additional relief or capacity . . . so our members can even just take their time off of, their vacation, and not just work on overtime to keep the vessels running and get their neighbours and friends back and forth,” McNeely said. 

With crewing shortages set to continue, he asked for travellers to have patience with frontline staff.

“The people that the public interact with, they’re the ones making the boats go back and forth, they’re the ones queuing up traffic and whatnot, not the ones setting the rates or causing the disruption.” 

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