Tourism is a crucial aspect of economic sustainability for Kingston, and the same is true for our neighbours just slightly southeast of us on Wolfe Island.
After over two years of pandemic ripple effects, those on the Island and on ‘the mainland’ have been looking forward to getting back to normal and enjoying all the perks the Island offers in summer.
But for a number of businesses on Wolfe Island, as well as their employees and hired entertainment from both the Island and Kingston, that excitement came to a screeching halt this past Saturday, Jun. 18, 2022.
At 5:15 p.m. that day, the Wolfe Islander III account on Twitter abruptly announced that the Wolfe Island ferry would be “out of service as of 1900h today June 18 and resume regular operation tomorrow at 0700h.”
“The ferry will remain available on short notice to respond to emergency services only. We apologize for the inconvenience and appreciate your patience,” tweeted the account, which purports to be the account of “a passenger & vehicle ferry operated by Ontario Ministry of Transportation b/n of Kingston and Wolfe Island (The Tragically Hip Way/Ontario Street & Marysville).” The account profile for ‘Wolfe Islander III’ (@WolfeIslander3) includes the hyperlink to the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) Ferry Services page, which includes an overview and schedule for the Wolfe Island Ferry.
The announcement came out of the blue, leaving only an hour and 15 minutes until the last ferry would depart the Island for the day, and an hour and 45 minutes until the last ferry would leave Kingston for the day.
Minutes later, on Facebook, the Wolfe Island Network account shared the tweet. And while the Twitter account for the ferry then went silent for a few hours, the Wolfe Island Network shared the following post.
“Dear Wolfe Island Ferry Passengers,
Please be advised that due to the impacts of an industry-wide shortage of licenced mariners, the Wolfe Island Ferry service will be shut down today at 1900h, due to a crew shortage. The ferry is expected to resume regular operations tomorrow morning at 0700h.
We understand the impact that this disruption will have on the local communities that rely on this critical transportation service. The ferry will remain available on short notice to respond to emergency services only.
We apologize for this necessary service disruption and thank you for your patience and understanding.
Director, Transportation User Services”
The information and sudden disruption of many people’s plans did not go over well with those local ferry users on social media, many of whom pointed to unfair wages for mariners, the safety issues the service disruption posed, and the sheer frustration caused by the lack of notice and delivery of the announcement through social media.
And for those who call Wolfe Island home, the service disruption was more than just an inconvenience. Not only were Islanders worried about emergency situations and those stranded on either side, they were also apprehensive about the looming unanswered question: If this can happen out of the blue this time, can it happen again? And if it does, will proper notice be given to those dependent on the essential service the ferry provides?
As prospective ferry users on both sides of Lake Ontario scrambled to change plans – some even needing to find accommodations because they could not get home to the Island – the Wolfe Islander III Twitter account posted again.
“We secured a licenced crew member for one final roundtrip tonight. Departing Kingston at 2330h (11:30pm) for the last trip to Wolfe Island and we will also depart Wolfe Island for a final trip to the mainland at 0000h (midnight). Regular service resumes at 0700h from Kingston,” they posted at 9:30 p.m.
While this was a relief for those stranded on either side of the ferry’s route, it offered no consolation to those employees and musicians who had ‘missed the boat’ on getting to their gigs, thanks to the sudden disruption of service.
Via social media, the Hotel Wolfe Island communicated, “We hosted live music – The Strange Happenings, an island based psych band performed. The China Cat Riders from Kingston weren’t able to join[; however,] as I understand it, it was an excellent night of live music with a few less folks in attendance because of the ferry issue.”
But members of the China Cat Riders, a Kingston-based Grateful Dead tribute band, were less enthusiastic about missing out on the “excellent night of live music.”
“I woke up Saturday morning looking forward to playing a show on Wolfe Island that afternoon,” said Wes Garland, keyboard/organ player with The China Cat Riders. “Our band… played venues on the Island on a regular basis prior to the pandemic; this was to be our second show there since the end of the mask mandate, and the first where I felt truly at ease and comfortable since March 2020.
“After loading my van and driving to Kingston, I boarded the 5:00 ferry, arriving at The Hotel around 5:30 p.m. Then I got a confusing text from my friend Wayne, an Islander, who had been planning to come to The Hotel for dinner and then stay for the show: ‘Hi Wes. I’ve just heard the ferry is not in service 7 pm tonight til morning. Is your gig still on?’”
Garland said he didn’t understand the question at first.
“On its face, it was preposterous. I thought [that] he thought I would be late due to an ambulance call [to Wolfe Island] or something. Then other band members and patrons started receiving text messages, reading Tweets, and seeing Facebook posts when it became clear: the next ferry was to be the last ferry until 7:30am the next day.” With some of his bandmates still in the ferry lineup on the Kingston side, the band conferred and decided they couldn’t play the show; one of the members had to work first thing the next morning, Garland said, and “a good portion of our audience was still on the mainland.”
“Fortunately, we realized what was going to happen early enough that we did not stay for dinner: we observed a handful of cars stuck on the Island when we left. In fact, our trip back to the mainland was delayed a good 15 minutes because the last person on the boat did not fit and would not leave,” he said. “What a frustrating day.”
But it was the Islanders who depend on ferry services on a daily basis – for a variety of reasons – for whom the apprehension and frustration were even more palpable.
“I [know] lots of people that want to work that live on the island and care about [the] island,” Island resident Vincent Mosier stated on the Wolfe Island Network’s post. Mosier noted that those in charge of hiring for the ferry seem unwilling to hire Wolfe Island residents.
“It’s time to change the people in charge of this so we can fix the problem. [It’s] been a problem for a long time now and someone needs to do [their] job before everyone [that cares] quits working on the boat… and they are lining up to quit.”
A number of other Islanders besides Mosier also accused the MTO of underpaying ferry employees, as well as not hiring those who live on the Island. Historically, Islanders have made up the majority of the crew members working on the ferry. And Islanders were also more than upset about finding themselves and their family members stranded.
“You didn’t know by the 2:00 boat there were going to be problems??? What about the three? Or the four???? You don’t think the people of the island deserved to know when they went to town they wouldn’t be able to get home????” wrote Angela Macauley. “SHAME ON YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Surprisingly, elected officials in charge of Wolfe Island were no more aware of the employee shortage and the possible impending disruption of services than local residents were. In fact, Denis Doyle, Mayor of Frontenac Islands and Warden of Frontenac County, was himself in the lineup for the boat from Kingston with his wife when he found out.
Doyle said the first he heard of the service suspension was “at 7:35 p.m. Saturday evening when my wife and I got in the lineup to return from Kingston to the Island.” Doyle was told “the next ferry would not be leaving until 7:00 a.m. Sunday morning,” he relayed.
Noting that he was not aware of any formal communications with the Frontenac Islands Council as of Monday, Jun. 20, 2022, Doyle said that Darlene Plumley, CAO of Frontenac Islands, had followed up with the MTO for more information. A dock attendant on the ferry’s Kingston side told Doyle that the MTO had not been able “to get a qualified engineer to work the shift from 7 p.m. Saturday to 7 a.m. Sunday morning, but that one [engineer] was scheduled to work the Sunday day shift.”
When asked what was being done to prevent the disruption of ferry service from happening again, Doyle said, “you’d have to ask the MTO,” noting, “we are in the process of sending a letter to the MTO and the Province to ask this and other questions.”
Doyle said that the MTO told him that in an emergency situation, such as an urgent need for paramedic services, a special trip of the Wolfe Islander III would take place. But he was still frustrated by the sudden and drastic event: “It is a very difficult and stressful situation for all, restaurants and residents, tourists… several people were stranded in Kingston on a busy summer weekend and could not find hotel rooms.”
He went on, “This is a provincial service and, while we work with our partners at the MTO on this and other operational issues — like getting the new Wolfe Islander IV vessel in service, which has been delayed several times since it arrived over eight months ago now — when it comes right down to it, Council has little if any influence regarding such issues.
“Residents should feel free to contact the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario directly with their concerns, and copy the municipality on such communications.”
When asked for any communications from the MTO or a possible contact that she communicates with, CAO Plumley said she herself only received communications from the MTO through an email subscription list and through Twitter.
“The township receives no advance notice and receives the same information as the general public,” she said.
So what does the MTO have to say?
Multiple and repeated attempts to communicate with the MTO on Monday, Jun. 20, 2022, went unanswered. Questions regarding how dire the situation is in terms of the number of employed mariner engineers, why there was no advanced notice given, why the Ministry communicates with the entire Municipality seemingly through social media, and what, if anything, is being done to prevent such a service disruption from occurring again were finally answered with the following statement from the MTO’s Assistant/Senior Issues Advisor Mike Fenn, just after 5 p.m.
“The Wolfe Island ferry service was shutdown between 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 18, 2022, and 7:00 a.m. on Sunday June 19, 2022.
The interruption of service was a result of not having the full complement of licensed crew members available to operate the vessel for the overnight shift.
Services have resumed as normal.”
Further questions, as well as those initially asked, were sent to multiple communications persons with the MTO again late Monday night and on Tuesday morning, including requests for a formal interview and for information on Colin Simons, who had apparently issued a statement on behalf of the MTO on Saturday night. The fact that the over 1,000 people living on Wolfe Island and hundreds of others who depend on the ferry have no means of communicating with the MTO or having their questions answered was reiterated; so, too, was the fact that what had happened wasn’t the primary question, but rather why it happened, and what was being done to prevent it happening again.
Later on the morning of Tuesday, Jun. 21, 2022, Fenn responded again, this time apologizing for the miscommunication and indicating he would look into the questions provided, aiming to respond by the end of the day. Fenn stated there was no spokesperson available for a formal interview.
As of 4:55 p.m. on Wednesday, Jun. 22, 2022, no response from the MTO had been received.
Kingstonist will provide updates on this matter if/when more information becomes available.