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Hardy But Aging Ocean Ferries Connect Scattered Hamlets in Alaska

Associated Press

The tugboat man is in the aft bar, telling tales of giant waves and rolling barges.

Families are homesteading the port side passenger lounge, staking out seats with backpacks and grocery sacks, sleeping on blankets spread in the aisle.

Up on deck, a tourist aims her video camera at sea otters splashing in the kelp, as the ferry thrums past them at a steady 14 knots toward the rock-lined passage of Sergius Narrows.

It’s another night on the MV LeConte, one of the nine “blue canoes” of the Alaska Marine Highway System. For 25 years the blue-and-white ships have served as taxis and tour boats to the water-bound towns of Alaska’s island regions.

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But the system is struggling with increasing demand at all points. Car decks are filling more quickly as passengers come aboard in larger cars, campers, trucks and buses, and the increase in walk-on passengers is even greater.

High-Speed Ferries

George Davidson, director of the Marine Highway since 1986, hopes to persuade the federal government to pay for several high-speed ferries, at a cost of $5 million to $15 million each. A long-term plan for the ferry system is being drafted as part of that campaign.

The ferries sail round the clock along a 3,500-mile route, from Seattle up Alaska’s Inside Passage and out a separate run across Prince William Sound and along the Aleutian Islands chain.

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They carry more than 370,000 people a year and 96,000 vehicles, from tractor-trailer rigs to grocery vans and motorcycles, kayaks and bicycles.

They keep many towns in milk, meat, fresh lettuce and fruit.

They carry villagers to their doctors in larger towns, high school athletes to their rivals’ gyms, winter-bound residents on weekend joy rides.

Babies have been born on board; people have died.

“You never really know what will happen,” says Bill Unkel, the LeConte purser. “It’s basically the same things you have anywhere else--it’s just concentrated on a ferry.”

The 235-foot LeConte is one of five “village boats” that serve as lifelines to the smaller logging and fishing towns and carry mostly local residents.

Four larger sister ships, the “mainliners,” make the longest runs to and from Seattle and Prince Rupert, Canada.

Together they’re one of Alaska’s biggest tourist attractions, a money-saving alternative to the cruise ships that share their scenic routes. The longest trip, a 63-hour voyage from Seattle to Haines, costs $200 for an adult. A 1 1/2-hour run from Homer to Seldovia, the shortest, costs $12.

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On the 408-foot Matanuska, 112 staterooms and hundreds of tourists create the atmosphere of a floating hotel. Outfitted with binoculars, passengers line the windows to scan for humpback and killer whales.

But their holiday enthusiasm doesn’t disguise the no-nonsense nature of this public transportation. Ferry life is one part whale-watching cruise and one part city bus.

Passengers seeking the gourmet buffets of cruise ships find instead cafeterias reminiscent of school lunch lines. Sailors double as parking attendants when the ferries are in port.

And amid the stern safety warnings on the car deck, a sign instructs passengers that they shouldn’t wear their sheath knives on board.

“Some of our back-to-the-future gentlemen come aboard with big bowie knives,” says Matanuska Purser Charles Bredehoft. “We do have a dress code.”

31 Communities

The ferries stop at 31 communities, visiting most of them at least every few days.

They run according to the tides and politics.

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What town gets which ferry and when is a perennial battle at Marine Highway headquarters and within the Alaska Legislature. Lawmakers control the ferry budget and thus can sway its management.

As the system celebrates 25 years of service, the state also faces long-range questions about the future of its aging fleet.

Some want to replace the slow-but-steady diesel ships with speedier catamarans. Others say the fleet should be trimmed, that the state can’t keep a $64 million-a-year ferry system afloat.

Boosters argue that the state’s subsidy--about half the total cost--is small change compared to tourist business generated by the ferries.

And yet others say tourism is overshadowing the ferries’ first purpose: providing a highway where roads can’t be built.

Davidson says basic transportation is the system’s most important service.

It is understandable that people would peg tourism development on the ferry schedule, but they stand the risk of losing a crucial ferry if there is more demand elsewhere for local residents’ use, he says.

Skagway learned that lesson last year. The tourist town has been trying to build its winter business but was foiled when a weekend ferry from Juneau was canceled so residents on Prince of Wales Island could get to Ketchikan more often.

Some ferry workers question the life span of the current fleet. Three ships--the Malaspina, Matanuska and Taku--have been in service since the Marine Highway’s first year of operation, 1963.

The Chilkat is even older. The territorial government bought it in 1957 to replace the area’s first ferry, a war surplus Navy landing craft that was privately run beginning in 1949.

Built in 1977

The youngest ferry is the Aurora, built in 1977.

Ferry officials also are considering changing the system’s southern terminus. Alaska ferries now dock in downtown Seattle, but Bellingham and Tacoma are vying for a new contract to be signed next year.

One of the big complaints of the system’s 850 employees is the lack of doctors on board. Pursers trained as emergency trauma technicians have to handle whatever injuries occur until the ferries can get to port.

Bill Unkel, the LeConte purser, says his biggest hassle is calming tourists when a ferry is delayed by loading problems or weather.

“The tourists think they’re on a tour boat. They don’t understand our main job is to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’,” Unkel says.

No. 2 on his headache list are the ferry runs crowded with children.


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