Ann Dasch was stuck.
She and hundreds of other Anderson Island residents were stranded last month after their ferry was taken out of service because of a steering problem.
To make things worse, the boat that broke that Monday morning was the backup for the regular ferry, which had been out for repairs for months.
Crews were able to swap the ferries, but there was another delay three days later.
“This was not just an inconvenience — this is our lifeline,” said Dasch, who has lived on the island for 11 years. “And when it’s not functioning — lives and livelihoods depend on it — people missed chemo, people missed surgery.”
The recent ferry problems have disrupted life on Anderson Island and prompted complaints about notifications and preparedness by the county.
“It was a tough week,” Dasch said. “Partly because of the breakdowns, but partly because the communication of the breakdowns has been so bad.”
Repairs since have been made, and both boats are back up and running as scheduled.
That’s good news for the 400 or so people who typically ride the ferry from Anderson Island to the mainland on weekdays this time of year.
But questions and complaints still continue to surface.
Dasch, for one, said the delays were not her main concern, but how the problems are handled.
“We expect the occasional mechanical breakdown, but not having the backup boat in a state where it can take over seemed negligent,” she said. “It’s been a huge concern.”
After the ferry problems, County Executive Pat McCarthy sent an apology via email to island residents. She emphasized the need for timely and accurate communication during disruptions.
“Please know that plans are already in development to improve our communication with you during an outage,” she wrote. “We can’t always anticipate ferry issues. However, we can do a better job of keeping you informed when those issues occur.”
The ferry makes 4,732 runs a year. Pierce County operates 16 hours of daily ferry service Monday through Thursday, with additional evening runs Friday and Saturday and a shorter schedule Sunday. The ferry makes more than 200 individual trips per week between Anderson and Ketron islands and the mainland. Based on data collected since 2010, the ferries are on time on 98 percent of the runs, said Deb Wallace, the county’s airport and ferry administrator.
Delays usually are because a ferry is full and cannot take more passengers or because a train along the Steilacoom waterfront is running behind schedule and blocking the ferry entrance, she said.
The recent problems started Feb. 29, when the boats that make the daily ferry runs ended up out of service.
The Christine Anderson, which usually makes the 30-minute trip, had been undergoing repairs, and trouble developed that day with the Steilacoom II, which had been used in its place in recent months.
During the first run of the day, crews discovered about 5:45 a.m. that the Steilacoom II had damage to its electrical steering. That stranded ferry users until evening.
Safety checks were done on the Christine Anderson and it was returned to service that night and for the next two days.
Mechanical problems again delayed the ferry March 3. An alert went out at 6 a.m. and passengers were being ferried by 7:15 a.m. Delays cropped up throughout the day.
Both ferries since have been repaired and are back on the job.
To share information about the ferries and other options, hundreds of island residents have been using a community Facebook page, Dasch said.
To strengthen official channels, significant upgrades are in the works for how the county notifies users about ferry delays and cancellations, Wallace said.
Right now, she said, her team sends out a quarterly “Sound Waves” newsletter to cover routine announcements.
Whenever there’s a delay in service, the team updates the county’s Facebook page, posts on their website and sends Rider Alerts via text message and email.
Plans are in place to improve the electronic signs at the dock and to review procedures for the Rider Alert system, Wallace said.
“We do realize that we need to improve the real-time communications, and so we are addressing that,” she said.
Her team soon will be using an “E log” to communicate with ferry customers, Wallace said.
The E-log is a notification that now goes to county employees, such as the director of Public Works and Wallace herself. The notifications let people know that the ferry is running late and why.
“The E-log requires the crew to take a moment to input that information, and it may be up to 20 minutes before the captain can safely take the time to do that,” Wallace said. “But it is nearly real-time communication.”
Residents realize that ferry delays and cancellations are part of island life but the problems raise bigger questions that people want explained, said Joe Howells, chairman of the Anderson Island Citizen Advisory Board.
“When you do have issues,” he said, “you really are concerned with communications as far as what’s happening, what’s the problem, what’s the cost, what are we facing with delays, what’s been found, why it’s been out for so long and if it’s going to lead to something like premature replacement.”
On the other hand, Howells said, he’s happy with how the community dealt with the recent ferry problems.
“When you have a situation like what we’ve dealt with out here, you really see what a tremendous community you have,” he said.
Residents used their own boats and resources to help get people where they needed to be.
In addition, a county fire boat from Anderson Island Fire and Rescue was used to move people, including taking one man to open-heart surgery.
“Naturally, people are upset, but people really pull together on this island to help each other out,” Howells said. “It’s a great community in addition to being a wonderful and beautiful place to live.”