Washington state has pulled the plug on its ferry service between Sidney and Anacortes this summer as the pandemic surges and the likelihood of the Canada-U.S. border reopening any time soon continues to dim.
Ferry routes to the U.S. — including the MV Coho to Port Angeles and high-speed Clipper service to Seattle — have been idled for nearly a year, severing the stream of Americans and a tourism lifeline to Vancouver Island.
The federal government has extended its closure of the border for non-essential travel monthly over the past year, the latest to March 21. This month, Ottawa cancelled the entire cruise season, banning big ships from May until October.
Black Ball Ferry Line, which operates the Coho, and Clipper Navigation say they will be ready to sail when the border restrictions are eased, and the U.S. Department of Transportation said Monday there is still a possibility it could offer a fall service to Sidney from the San Juan Islands.
“There is a slight hope we could sail to Sidney in the fall, but that would depend on how soon the border could open,” said Ian Sterling, a spokesman for Washington State Ferries.
Sailings between Sidney and Anacortes, Washington, a two-hour trip through the San Juan Islands with a stop in Friday Harbor, have been suspended since last March after a ban on non-essential travel between Canada and the United States due to the pandemic.
If the border does reopen at some point, Sterling said it will take some time for the service to ramp up with crewing, sailing schedules and vessel preparation.
The route is down to one ferry — the Chelan, which has a capacity for 1,100 passengers and 124 vehicles. The other ferry, the Elwha, has been retired.
Sterling said Washington State Ferries has the budget to continue the Sidney route during the spring, summer, and fall months.
“It’s a good route, it’s popular,” said Sterling, noting it makes money during the summer months that offset losses in the shoulder seasons.
He said the Anacortes-Sidney route is the ferry system’s longest and oldest, operating for nearly a century.
The ferry system operated an Anacortes-to-Friday Harbour route last summer and had “very good numbers, so there’s a pent-up demand for it.”
Washington State Ferries saw its passenger numbers drop by more than 40% last year due to COVID-19.
Ryan Burles, president of Black Ball Ferry Line, said the company is maintaining the MV Coho and will be ready for the green light at the border.
The Coho made its last sailing between the Inner Harbour and Port Angeles on March 29. Other than its annual refits, the vessel has been a familiar sight on its daily crossings of the Juan de Fuca Strait for more than 60 years.
“We are taking her out every six weeks for a couple of hours to keep it [operational],” Burles said.
The 341-foot Coho, which holds 1,000 passengers and 115 vehicles, will be in dry dock for four days starting March 8 at Dakota Creek Shipyard in Anacortes. “We’ll give her a shave and a haircut, general maintenance,” said Burles. “She’s immaculate, but she’s 60 years old, and we just want to make sure everything is good and we have her ready to go when the border re-opens.”
Burles said Black Ball is maintaining operations and payrolls through government loans and financial assistance plans.
“There’s a lot of unknowns,” Burles said, citing the new mutations of the virus, the success of the vaccine rollouts on both sides of the border and how people will feel about travel when it’s deemed safe to do so.
“I think there’s lot of pent up demand, but we really don’t know the circumstances of what an opening will be.
“We know it has to be safe to travel, and not just kind of safe. I know that about 90% of B.C. people don’t want the border to be open until it’s safe.”
Clipper Navigation CEO David Gudgel said he hopes increasing vaccination rates on both sides of the border — and decreasing infection rates in Washington — are signs the border may open soon.
The Clipper has suspended service to Victoria at least until April 30.
Like most seasonal tour operators, the summer period is “critical for Clipper’s revenue generation,” he said.
Gudgel said the company is hoping for a surge in business from Victorians when the Seattle Kraken begin their first National Hockey League season this fall.