ISLESBORO, Maine — Maine’s newest Penobscot Bay ferry, the Capt. Richard G. Spear, pulled away from the landing at Lincolnville Beach, headed for Islesboro, about 3 miles across the bay. A crew of five was on board, as required by the Maine Department of Transportation.
The ferry was set to make all of its scheduled trips on this day, which is only surprising because there have been a number of days—too many, some say—when ferries have had to cancel trips because of a lack of crew members.
“There is a widespread shortage of mariners available to do this work,” Maine DOT spokesman Paul Merrill said, explaining the staffing problem.
“Availability is a challenge, pay is a challenge. And we tried to address some of those issues, but we’re facing significant challenges, and in some cases, we are one sick call away from not having a crew for a ferry run. ... When that happens, we do have to cancel," he said. "We don’t like to do that. It’s the last thing we want to do.”
Merrill says they have had to cancel runs on Penobscot Bay ferries a total of 29 times from early May through July 4.
And more cancellations have happened since then, as the staffing problem has persisted.
The greatest need is for the people who work the deck, those the passengers are most likely to see. Their job titles are classified by federal maritime regulations as able-bodied and ordinary seamen, and they have specific training and certification for those jobs.
Merrill said they currently have 29 people in those positions, working the Penobscot Bay ferries to Islesboro, North Haven, and Vinalhaven, seven days a week, plus occasional trips to Matinicus Island.
But like any other employer, he said there are days when some people aren’t available because of illness or other reasons.
Some ferries need a crew of four to operate, but large boats like the Capt. Spear require five people: three seamen, an engineer, and the captain. When the ferry service can’t find enough crew, the ferry doesn’t run.
Merrill says the MDOT is projecting that as many as 20 trips to and from Islesboro may be canceled this week.
“We can’t just take a member of a road crew and say, 'Today you’re working a ferry.' It wouldn’t be safe, [and] it wouldn’t be legal," Merrill said. "These are credentialed, experienced positions, and that creates even more of a challenge finding [people to fill] them."
For islanders and summer visitors, as are the many people who go to work on the islands every day, canceled trips are an annoyance and a worry.
Janet Anderson, Isleboro's town manager, said she understands the problem and understands why some people are angry about it.
“I appreciate how everyone feels and is bothered by this, especially truckers and people who go off [the island] every day. I’ve heard it from Vinalhaven and North Haven, and people there have fewer trips than we do,” Anderson said.
The MDOT sent letters about the problem in early May, warning the island towns and members of the ferry advisory board that the shortage of crew members could force cancellations of trips.
Paul Merrill said some retired mariners, including some retired ferry workers, have stepped up to help, but they haven’t been able to fill all the gaps.
Pay is part of the problem, Merrill said. Able-bodied seamen earn $22.78 per hour at the top of the scale, whereas ordinary seamen make $17.54.
Merrill said the department cannot raise pay because it is governed by the state employee union contract. He said they instituted $2,000 bonuses this year, but they are still struggling to find enough qualified seamen to meet the need.
The DOT, he said, is actively working to hire seven more able-bodied seamen and two ordinary seamen, to fill out rosters and keep the ferries running.
“We understand it is aggravating, having your only connection to the mainland be canceled," he said. "We’re sorry, we don’t like to do it. We are in a tough spot being able to staff safely and legally.”
Ferry operators and ferry riders all hope they can bring new people on board quickly.