The Wabanaki motors past the Maine State Pier on its way to Portland on Tuesday. Casco Bay Lines is reducing the number of trips to outer islands due to a labor shortage as college students return to school. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Staffing shortages are forcing Maine’s biggest ferry operators to reduce their services during the summer, a busy time of year when boats carry seasonal visitors as well as year-round islanders.

Casco Bay Lines, which operates from the Portland waterfront, is scaling back its scheduled trips to less populated “down bay” islands starting this weekend for the remaining three weeks of the season. Peaks Island, the most populated of the six islands served by the quasi-municipal corporation, will not be affected, but there will be fewer weekday morning ferry trips to the other five islands.

Instead of 12 to 15 trips per day, there will be 10 to 12 trips made to Great Diamond, Little Diamond, Long Island and Diamond Cove. Chebeague and Cliff islands will have seven trips per day instead of eight. The modified schedule can be viewed on their website and in the terminal.

The Maine State Ferry Service, which serves the islands in Penobscot Bay, has canceled 59 trips since May 1, about 1.3 percent of its total scheduled trips summer, according to the Department of Transportation. Spokesman Paul Merrill said cancellations are a last resort.

“Sometimes, all it takes is one employee being out and we can’t safely and legally staff a ferry run,” Merrill said.

The ferry service is finding it especially difficult to fill maritime positions given the pay rates and high credentials needed, said Merrill. In particular, he said, they need more ordinary seamen, who are paid $17.54 an hour, and able seamen, who are paid $22.78 and must pass a U.S. Coast Guard test.


Merrill said there are rules around pay rates set by a union contract, but they are trying to figure out ways to improve the compensation, such as stipends for able seamen and engineers.

“Just anecdotally, I see restaurants that advertise … starting around $16, $17 an hour, so there are challenges,” Merrill said. “We’ve got some parameters we have to stick by, but we’re still trying to get creative in order to make sure we can attract and keep good workers.”

Gabe Wagner, a deckhand on the Aucocisco III, casts a wet dock line ashore at the Maine State Pier on Tuesday. Casco Bay Lines is reducing the number of trips to outer islands due to a labor shortage as college students return to school. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Unlike the state-run ferry service, Casco Bay Lines officials say it hasn’t canceled any trips this summer and is counting on the reduced schedules to get through the busy season.

“We had to do something proactively so that we wouldn’t be in a situation where we had to randomly cancel service, which from an islander’s perspective is extremely inconvenient because they rely on us as a lifeline to the islands,” General Manager Hank Berg said.

Casco Bay Lines serves a much smaller area and has different staffing needs than the state service, officials said. Many of its seasonal employees are college students and it provides on-the-job training for deck hands and ticket and freight agents.



Berg said the ferry service normally loses staff toward the end of summer because college students want to spend time with family and friends before going back to school. But this summer, they’re losing more than usual, he said. Nearly half of Casco Bay Lines’ 57 seasonal employees have left or are planning to leave before the end of the season, bringing the total staff of 99 employees down to 71. Berg also said it has been more of a challenge this year than other years to fill deckhand positions.

This year’s staffing shortages coincided with the beginning of Casco Bay Lines’ two-year pilot program to test a new, expanded down bay schedule, which included an additional two to three trips per day to each of the smaller islands. The schedule revisions were approved in 2019 by the board of directors, but because of pandemic interruptions, were first implemented this summer. It was the first major change to a Casco Bay Lines’ schedule in 50 years and the project spanned years, involving a public survey, public hearings and an analysis by a marine transportation consultant.

Alicia Caterina, a deckhand who works year-round at Casco Bay Lines, said she thinks there are too many boats going out, some within fifteen minutes of each other, and not enough staff. A few captains have been stepping in as deck hands to help out, she said, but it’s not sustainable. She said she’s worried the modified schedule won’t have enough reductions to help.

“I love working here, but I wish it would settle down to what it used to be,” Caterina said. “People have been burnt out trying to keep up with the schedule.”

Deckhand Alicia Caterina, center, connects a pallet to a crane aboard the Wabanaki on Tuesday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


Jessica James, a spokesperson for Casco Bay Lines, wrote in an email that the schedule will be re-evaluated at the end of the two-year pilot program, but the intention is still for the new schedule to be implemented long-term.


For the remainder of the summer, Berg said the ferry line tried to minimize disruption when choosing which trips to be canceled — the freight shift and most of the commuter and early morning runs won’t be impacted. The canceled trips normally have less than fifteen riders, Berg said, as opposed to busier trips, which hold hundreds.

“I can’t make the claim that no one depended on them, but if someone did … they would be able to get another boat in a very reasonable amount of time,” he said. “It doesn’t leave any major gap of service.”

Megan Silverthorne, a resident of Cliff Island who takes the Casco Bay Lines’ down bay ferry five days a week to commute to work, said the schedule change will not drastically affect her. She normally takes the 6:15 a.m. ferry, she said, and the eliminated trip is at 8:20 a.m., which she only takes when she gets to sleep in.

“It was convenient and it was nice, but I can understand why they’re taking it away,” said Silverthorne, who co-owns a hair salon in Falmouth. “There were literally, like, five people on the boat each time I took it.”

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