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Sleeping captain adds to Clinton-Mukilteo ferries’ late start woes

FREELAND — Ferry riders from Whidbey Island are furious over cancelled sailings, the most recent caused by a sleeping captain.

Wednesday morning at 4:30 a.m. the first boat out of Clinton, the Cathlamet, turned around more than halfway to Mukilteo, reported two South Whidbey residents who were on the boat, Bill Couch and Pamela Sipe.

The captain announced the reason as a “staffing issue,” a problem that has become common and widely reported. However, this one was different.

Couch said he heard from a ferry worker that the captain of the Kittitas was asleep on the Cathlamet and as soon as that was discovered, the boat had to turn around.

That account was confirmed by Marta Coursey, Washington State Ferries spokesperson, later Wednesday morning.

“The captain of the Kittitas was overnighting on the Cathlamet,” Coursey said later Wednesday morning. “He overslept, and the Cathlamet didn’t realize it.”

Ferry workers often sleep overnight in bunks on the ferries when their schedule demands it.

When the sleeping captain was noticed, the Cathlamet had to immediately turn around to put the captain back on the Kittitas to keep it on schedule as much as possible, Coursey explained.

“We were running about 20 minutes late,” she said.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” said Couch, who has been riding the ferries for 40 years.

“What a waste of fuel and time,” Sipe said in an email after Wednesday’s early morning problem.

Advisors hear complaints

Earlier this month, a handful of early morning sailings were scrapped when a ferry crew member missed work. On Monday, Nov. 19, the 5:10 and 5:35 a.m. sailings were cancelled because of a “crewing issue,” according to an alert by Washington State Ferries.

With Clinton-to-Mukilteo ferries often filled with cars and walk-on passengers in the weekday morning runs, the cancellations caused quite a delay at the start of Thanksgiving week, leaving Whidbey Island residents with lots of gripe and little thanks toward the ferry system. Crewing-related cancellations have also occurred on the Coupeville-to-Port Townsend route.

Cancellations in November and October were a hot topic at a recent ferry advisory committee meeting in Freeland. Committee members Dave Hoogerwerf and Dean Enell, who represent the Clinton committee, heard five commuters’ wishes and frustrations.

“I ride the ferry every day,” said Clinton resident Catherine Billera. “It really irritates me when people are making decisions for people who take the ferry every day and they’re not taking the ferry every day.”

Billera walks on the Clinton ferry, then catches the Sounder light rail train to Seattle for work. Her husband Tony Billera occasionally crosses Puget Sound, but he rides his motorcycle and has avoided some of the problems faced by drivers when the holding lot fills and a car line snakes from the ferry terminal up Highway 525 toward Dairy Queen.

One of the proposed solutions to long car lines — and it’s not exactly novel — is an overnight parking lot in Mukilteo. At ferry advisory meetings across the water, however, construction of a large lot near the Mukilteo ferry terminal has been rejected by citizens. However, Port of South Whidbey President Curt Gordon is still pursuing a parking garage in Mukilteo, working with that city and other agencies.

Deborah Trainor recently moved to Clinton and works over town. She tried utilizing an Island County Transit van pool. It didn’t last long because Trainor’s schedule delayed her fellow carpool riders — something she wasn’t comfortable with. Lines on the Mukilteo side delayed her return home by two hours, sometimes even three hours.

“When I do have to drive in and drive back, it is horrible,” Trainor said. “It’s just terrible. I don’t know what can make it better.”

Ahead of a Nov. 29 visit by David Moseley to Freeland, assistant transportation secretary of ferries, ferry commuters are geared to give him an earful. The cancellations — which Moseley has asserted are not union organized — are sure to dominate the conversation. Adequate parking and the proposed new terminal are also likely topics. The ferry system selected the site for the new Mukilteo terminal, estimated to cost between $120 million and $130 million (only $90 million is in the state’s budget for the project).

The new site will move the terminal to the site of the disused oil tank farm pier, less than a half-mile northeast of the current terminal and directly across from the Mukilteo rail station.

The new terminal may include 67 additional day parking spaces, though no overnight parking is planned. Six bus bays are also part of the Elliot Point 2 concept, which would make the Mukilteo terminal a true transit hub.

“I’ve always been a firm advocate that the terminal in Mukilteo requires three-legged planning: busses, ferries and Sounder,” Hoogerwerf said.

Ferry advisory committee members were adamant that commuters’ concerns will be well received by Moseley. History is on their side. Several years ago when Washington State Ferries began implementing a reservation system, Moseley visited Clinton and arrived to a packed house clearly opposed to starting reservations on the Clinton-to-Mukilteo run, as is already being done on the Coupeville-to-Port Townsend run.

“And they listened,” Enell said. “There’s no reservation (system).”

Record editor Jim Larsen contributed to this story.

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