SEATTLE — Ferry workers won’t be fighting over the shiny new Tokitae when it joins the fleet June 15.
Getting on a particular boat is way down the priority list in choosing deck and engine room jobs. At the top are location and schedule.
The best might be daytime Monday through Friday, for example; the worst could be having to travel to an island a day early to be with the boat when it starts service early in the morning.
Workers bid for positions four times a year, before each sailing season. Selection is based entirely on seniority. If somebody becomes disabled, quits or retires during a season, the next person bumps up and openings domino through the system. It’s the same when a boat is added for “shoulder” seasons, like on the Port Townsend-Coupeville route.
Dan Twohig is qualified to be a relief chief mate, but remains a second mate in the afternoons on the Bainbridge route for less money.
“I have the seniority to bid and be assigned this higher-paying job,” he said. “Why don’t I do it? Because there is complete uncertainty of job assignments, all kinds of travel involved at all hours of the day and night and all over the system. That lifestyle (stinks), which is why you get paid more to do it.”
He could be a full-time chief mate on a regular watch, but his seniority would only allow him to get an early-morning position.
“I am not willing to get up every day at 3 a.m. to go to work,” he said. “… When it comes to bidding WSF jobs, it is all about the quality of life, and everybody who works here has different needs.”
Washington State Ferries employs a person whose sole responsibility is to administer the bidding system.
“I couldn’t think of a more complicated process,” said George Capacci, WSF interim director. “There are 440 to 450 sailings a day. The fact that crews and dispatchers are able to put people in those holes is amazing to me.”
Tokitae’s arrival slightly complicates things further. The 144-car boat will be assigned to the Mukilteo-Clinton route. It’s a short trip and many people remain in their cars, so WSF plans to keep the sundeck closed. In that case, the Coast Guard will let it sail with a 12-person crew instead of 14. That’s just one more than the 124-car Cathlamet it’s replacing. Tokitae will run two crews a day, one for eight hours and the other for nine, WSF Planning Director Ray Deardorf said Monday.
Cathlamet will move to Bremerton for the summer while Bremerton’s regular boat, Kitsap, is repainted.
When ferries relocate, engine room crews stay with the boat while deck crews remain on the route. Engine crews work 12 hours on, 12 hours off and develop a connection with the running gear. They can tell if something is amiss just by listening. Deck workers get the same familiarity with navigating their routes.
The Cathlamet crew will move to its replacement, the Tokitae, on the Mukilteo-Clinton route, for example, unless they lose out in bidding for the summer season. Its engine crew will stay with the boat.
Washington State Ferries has expected to receive Tokitae from Vigor Shipbuilding for a couple of weeks, but the date keeps slipping. It could happen any day. State engine crews have been training on the ferry for three months, Capacci said. A construction captain and construction chief mate have been aboard and will teach the other deck hands. The boat will be introduced at a June 8 event on Whidbey Island.
Ferries officials are staffing up for the summer, when more service is provided and more workers are needed. The past couple of summers, many sailings had to be canceled because of a lack of qualified crew. They have hired and are training four classes of on-call ordinary seamen — entry-level deckhands, Capacci said. Two classes already are working. The fourth two-week class starts today. They total about 60.
“We’ve been doing everything we can,” Capacci said.
Twohig doesn’t share his boss’s confidence because WSF is struggling to attract and keep qualified talent.
“Even with every employee going the extra mile by working overtime to keep the ships sailing, a lack of available, qualified crew will make late boats and missed sailings a distinct possibility,” he said. “At some point, the pool of people willing to compromise their quality of life to work on their scheduled days off will be depleted.”