The captain scheduled to steer the Kittitas at 5:10 a.m. arrived in Clinton the night before and spent the night on the Cathlamet, which was tied up at the dock.
He didn't get off the Cathlamet before it pulled out at 4:40 a.m. and the Kittitas was without a captain.
The Cathlamet had to turn around to drop off the captain and then resumed its route, arriving in Mukilteo about 5:25 a.m., rider Pam Sipe of Clinton said.
"We had made it more than halfway across and they came over the loudspeaker and said that we had to return to Clinton due to a personnel issue," Sipe said.
Sipe sent an email to the ferry system about the problem. Ferries chief David Moseley responded that he's not sure why the captain didn't get off the Kittitas in time.
"We didn't miss any sailings but the boats were certainly behind schedule for the first several runs," he said. "I really apologize for the disruption this caused the morning customers."
He didn't say in the email whether a similar situation has occurred before and couldn't be reached for further comment.
In June, the ferry system cut back its personnel as a cost-saving measure. Since then, more than 50 sailings have been cancelled throughout the system because not enough crew members showed up for work. Twelve of the cancelled boats have been on the Mukilteo-Clinton run and six more on Port Townsend-Coupeville. Several others throughout the system have run late.
The reductions, in most cases one employee per boat, cut the number of staff per sailing to the minimum number required by the U.S. Coast Guard. If any one employee is absent and a replacement can't be rounded up in time, the vessel can't sail.
Wednesday's incident did not appear to be related to the staff issue and likely could have happened any time, spokeswoman Marta Coursey said. The incident will be investigated, she said.
Staff sometimes will sleep on a boat depending on shift schedules, Coursey said. Sipe, who commutes from Clinton to her job at Onamac, a Boeing supplier on Airport Road, said she usually takes the boat at 5:10 a.m. but took the 4:40 a.m. on Wednesday because of the recent cancellations on the 5:10. Sipe was late for work because of a cancellation Monday morning.
She sent an email response to Moseley's response on Wednesday.
"I think we can all agree that this is not acceptable," she said. "I appreciate your apology, however, what I really am asking for is a solution."
Moseley is scheduled to attend a public meeting on Thursday in Clinton to discuss the issues facing the system, including the staff problems.
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.
The ferry system has scheduled a meeting for 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Trinity Lutheran Church, 18341 Highway 525 in Freeland, to discuss issues facing the ferry system, including recent staff problems. For more information go to http://tinyurl.com/89kf228.
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