For the second summer in a row, ferry trips across the Gulf of Alaska likely won’t happen. The Alaska Marine Highway System is cutting back summer service, based on its schedule released last month on Jan. 18. AS KMXT’s Davis Hovey reports, ongoing staffing issues and overdue maintenance are making reliable service unpredictable for dozens of coastal communities, including Kodiak.
Some key routes will be scaled back this summer and potentially even cut altogether, including the usual sailings across the Gulf of Alaska. Typically, the M/V Kennicott connects the regions of Southcentral and Southeast with sailings across the Gulf of Alaska. It has also serviced Kodiak Island in the past. But this summer the mainline service from Bellingham, Wash. to Whittier won’t happen and it’s unlikely the cross-gulf community of Yakutat will see a ferry at all.
Sam Dapcevich is a spokesperson for the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) under the Department of Transportation. He said this summer’s schedule is similar to last year’s with the Kennicott potentially being out of service from May to the end of September [the whole season].
“Right now the schedule that’s out is the same [as last summer], the Kennicott is not on the schedule,” Dapcevich explained. “But we are seeing a bump in recruitment, and we’re hopeful that we might be able to get the Kennicott back on the summer schedule this year, if that trend holds.”
The Kennicott is an ocean going vessel which means some crew members need to have higher levels of certification in order to work on the ferry, making it harder to find qualified employees. Dapcevich says that if the department can fully staff the Kennicott by May, then the cross Gulf of Alaska route sailings could happen.
According to Dapcevich, AMHS is also negotiating letters of agreement with unions to bring back some retired crew members to fill vacancies onboard the Kennicott.
Hope then turns to the Tustumena, or the Trusty Tusty as it is affectionately known by many Alaskans, the only vessel that is capable of serving 13 communities between Homer and Unalaska on the Southwest route. Kodiak Island’s flagship ferry is in its sixtieth year of service, basically double its life expectancy. As such, talk of replacing the Tustumena has been underway for years. Dapcevich said as of this week [Jan. 31], that project has not gone out for bid.
The new Tustumena will be powered by diesel-electric, the state’s first hybrid ferry. Marine Director Craig Tornga told Alaska Public Media that several shipyards in the Lower48 expressed interest in taking on the Tustumena replacement project earlier this year, and construction could begin by the end of this year once the RFP (request for proposals) is out. The original timeline had a replacement vessel slated to be built by 2027.
Despite its age and frequent need for repairs, the Tustumena is scheduled to sail its usual Kodiak Island route this summer, Homer to Port Lions, Ouzinkie, Kodiak and Seldovia including stops in Old Harbor once a month starting in June.
The Tusty is the only vessel scheduled to service Unalaska, with stops across the Aleutian chain once a month from May to September. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the oldest ferry in the fleet would do two Aleutian runs a month.
Michael Queen is the chief purser onboard the Tustumena. During a recent trip from Homer to Kodiak, he told KMXT how critical the Alaska marine highway system is for coastal residents.
“I live on an island, and we deserve highways every bit as much as the person who gets into their car and drive from Anchorage to Palmer,” Queen said.
But coastal residents have less reliable transportation right now with four ferries currently out of water, the Le Conte, Columbia, Matanuska and Tazlina, leaving only five AMHS vessels still in service.
The M/V Columbia is laid up in the shipyard for annual overhaul work after resuming service in Southeast last spring. Prior to 2023 it had been docked in Ketchikan since 2019 to save money.
AMHS expects the Columbia to return to service in May along with the Le Conte and Tazlina, in time to do the summer sailings from Bellingham to Juneau.
One of the fleet’s oldest ferries, the Matanuska, which was built in 1963, is also unlikely to sail at all this summer. Dapcevich says the Matanuska, which normally sails into Prince Rupert, British Columbia is still undergoing major work on its hull.
“We had it scheduled for an overhaul. When we brought it in they determined that there was quite a bit of steel that was going to need to be replaced. There’s also some Coast Guard requirements, we are coming up against a deadline to do some major changes on the boat,” Dapcevich said.
According to Dapcevich the mainliner vessel will come out of dry dock soon and receive an evaluation or “sounding” to look at all the steel onboard, not just in the hull but also in the tanks below deck.
Without the Matanuska online, AMHS is anticipating not being able to sail to the community of Prince Rupert, southwest of Metlakatla, this summer either. But Dapcevich says if that ferry is back online by this summer, or both the Columbia and Kennicott are in service then the route to Prince Rupert could be reinstated later this year. A similar situation happened last year with the Matanuska, after it was unexpectedly brought into the shipyard for major repairs, stranding some ferry goers in Prince Rupert for months and canceling summer service to BC altogether.
“AMHS’s Proposed Vessel Deployment:
- Columbia to operate on the Friday Bellingham Route May through September.
- LeConte to sail Northern Panhandle May through September.
- Lituya to sail 5 days per week between Annette Bay and Ketchikan, May through September. She will be in overhaul in August.
- Tustumena to sail the Southwest Route May through September with one [Aleutian] chain trip per month.
- Aurora to sail PWS May through September
- Hubbard to sail Lynn Canal 6 days per week mid-May through September
- Kennicott Cross Gulf **Pending Crew**“
While staffing shortages persist and several vessels remain dry docked with maintenance issues, a temporary solution to fill AMHS service gaps is to contract them out. Dapcevich said this is called supplemental service.
“Running six ships, trying to cover every different event has been challenging. Down in Southeast I know we have added some supplemental service where we have contracts with Alan Marine and Goldbelt, they have some catamarans that are in the 80 to 100-foot range,” he said. “They’ve been able to help us cover some of the gaps down here.”
Mostly these supplemental service contracts are used in southeast communities as the routes don’t require vessels to be ocean going, or traverse rougher seas in open water.
As the summer season draws nearer, ferry goers can view the latest schedule changes and service notices online at the Alaska Marine Highway System’s website.