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Staffing shortages spark dozens of state ferry cancellations

Ferry Captain E Frank Thompson
Pat Wellenbach
The new ferry, Captain E. Frank Thompson, makes its maiden voyage to Vinalhaven Island as it leaves Rockland, Maine, on Friday, April 20, 2012. The 154 ft. vessel that weighs 494 tons is the newest ferry for the Maine State Ferry Service, making it the first vessel to be added to the fleet in 19 years.

The Maine State Ferry Service has canceled several dozen runs since early May because of maritime staffing shortages.

The Islesboro route alone has 20 cancellations this week. From May 9 through July 4, there were a total of 29 cancellations across all six routes to Maine islands, said Paul Merrill, a spokesman for the state's Department of Transportation.

He said it takes four-to-five trained and credentialed seamen to operate each vessel.

"We don't like doing this, obviously," Merrill said. "We know that every one ferry run that gets impacted for whatever reason means that somebody is not getting to work or to school or to see family. It's not something we like to do; we just don't have the staff at some points to safely operate. The Ferry Service does a really good job of trying to put together the puzzle pieces to make this thing work. Some days they run out of pieces."

It became apparent earlier this spring that the Ferry Service may have to cancel more runs than usual, Merrill said. Maine DOT Commissioner Bruce Van Note notified town officials and Ferry Service Advisory Board members about the staffing issues.

The Ferry Service is offering bonuses and stipends to fill at least nine open positions, but the entire maritime industry is facing similar challenges.

"It would be easier if we could have somebody who drives the plow truck in the winter come in and lend a hand or have somebody from the islands come in and volunteer," Merrill said. "That's not the case though; these are skilled and credentialed positions that involve some training and certification."

The Ferry Service is also discussing how it can better communicate route cancellations or changes. But Merrill said the best way to track them is by signing up for 511 traffic alerts through the Maine DOT website.