Editor’s note: This is the first part of a four-part series about the health of the ferry Tustumena and the need to replace the 52-year-old ship. It was first published in the Juneau Empire and has been serialized for your convenience.
In mid-January, everyone aboard the ferry Tustumena was miserable.
Each year, the Alaska Marine Highway System takes the Tustumena out of regular service and sails it across the Gulf of Alaska to bring legislators, their staffers and housewares from Southcentral to Juneau.
The trips coincide with the Gulf’s stormiest season, and some of this year’s trips were miserable even by those standards.
John Mayer is one of the Tustumena’s captains. He wasn’t on this particular voyage, but he knows it well.
“The Gulf of Alaska is the cradle of storms that go across North America. It has no mercy on you when you really get going,” he said, sharing a line once used by an oil-tanker captain.
In the Gulf’s heavy winter seas, the 52-year-old Tustumena lurched forward, rising and plunging with every wave. Green water frequently washed over the windows of the ship’s forward observation lounge. From its headquarters in Ketchikan, the ferry system repeatedly issued notices that the ship’s arrival would be delayed, and that its departure from Juneau would be late as well. The ferry system’s own satellite tracking service showed the Tustumena struggling forward at a meager 4 knots.
At sea, the Tustumena slammed into oncoming waves again and again. Suddenly, there was a titanic wave — so big that its impact rattled the whole ship and made a memorable jolt even in a trip filled with them.
In the hull of the Tustumena, a place called Void No. 1, steel cracked under the force of this wave and all the others that came before it.
“It’s cumulative,” Mayer said. “The analogy I like to use: How many times can you bend a paperclip until it breaks?”
The Tustumena’s crew regularly inspects Void No. 1. On one of those inspections after the ship’s mid-January trip, a crewman found a crack and notified the ship’s captain. He told administrators. Those administrators, in turn, brought in Patrick Eberhardt of Coastwise Corp., the sole naval architecture firm in Alaska.
Eberhardt found not one crack but four. One was 3 inches long.
On their own, the cracks didn’t endanger the safety of the Tustumena. Collectively, and given the ship’s history, they told a story of concern.
“The cracking … in Void #1 has been occurring for many years and has been the subject of multiple investigation reports and repairs,” Eberhardt wrote in a report dated May 12.
He noted signs of previous repairs in the same area.
“All of the repairs in these regions appear to have been repairs of cracks and/or minor structural modifications to reduce stress in the affected areas. Repairs to this area of the vessel are now being conducted frequently, on an annual basis. … Unless significant improvements are made to the subject structure, the chance of damage reoccurring and/or becoming worse is high.”
Eberhardt completed his report with a handful of extraordinary recommendations. In addition to repairing the cracks, and regularly inspecting for future damage, he demanded the Marine Highway keep the Tustumena out of extremely rough waters, completely “stop using the Tustumena for ‘Cross Gulf of Alaska’ trips” and conduct a detailed analysis of the stresses causing the cracks, something that will cost several hundred thousand dollars — and potentially much more if the analysis turns up problems.
The Tustumena is still safe to sail, but there’s no way to know how long it will stay that way.
With that in mind, Eberhardt said the ferry system must begin “a discussion of vessel end of life operations.”
In other words,it’s time for a new Tustumena.
‘It’s our lifeline’
To understand why the Tustumena matters, you need to leave Southeast Alaska, where almost all of the state’s ferries work. Go to Homer, Kodiak and Dutch Harbor, where the ship normally spreads its wake.
From the dock in Homer, the Tustumena looks like a slightly smaller version of the Malaspina, Matanuska or Taku, the other three ferries built when the state ferry system was born shortly after Alaska statehood.
As your eyes travel from the bow to the stern, they’re inevitably drawn to a towering construction aft. “Tustumena is remarkable for her unique vehicle elevator and turntable system,” declared Bruce Hutchison of Seattle marine engineering firm Glosten Associates, in a 1998 paper.
That elevator means the Tustumena can take trucks, container vans, RVs and almost anything else from cannery docks and city piers, regardless of tidal swings up to 32 feet.
In Southeast Alaska, ferry docks tend to be owned by the state. In Southwest, they’re owned by communities or fish canneries.
Only the Tustumena and the ferry Kennicott, built in 1998, have elevators that can serve these docks, and the Kennicott (86 feet longer than the 382-foot Tustumena) is too large to fit alongside some of them.
“Oh, my goodness. It’s our lifeline. It’s our highway,” said Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, when asked about the importance of the Tustumena. “How important is food everyday? That’s pretty much it. It’s crucial to Kodiak and to a lot of the coastal communities that go out the chain.”
Jim Ashford spent 40 years as the manager of the Kodiak ferry terminal. He was there when the Tustumena arrived in Kodiak for the first time. It was July 1964, four months after the Good Friday earthquake brought a tsunami that destroyed much of the city.
“People in Kodiak set their lives around the ferry,” he said. “I know of many, many guides and lodges or so forth that set their schedules around the ferry schedule.”
“We’re the only show up here,” Tustumena captain Mayer said. “When we go down, there’s nothing that can fill in for us. We’re kind of like a one-pony show.”
Sometimes, that show can be fairly spectacular.
Each year, the Tustumena (or the Kennicott) hauls the carnival rides and amusements for Kodiak’s annual king crab festival. It hauls Christmas trees in November and vans of frozen fish year-round.
One year, it hauled the circus. “Before I was here, they carried the circus one time to Kodiak, and the whole car deck looked like Noah’s Ark,” Mayer said.
“The crew used to haul pumpkins out to all the villages (for Halloween),” Ashford said. “It used to be that all the crew would want to go on the pumpkin run.”
Those days are gone, he added.
“It’s been a workhorse, but it was time to replace it a long time ago.”
On July 12, the state of Alaska published a draft amendment to its “Statewide Transportation Improvement Program,” a document that outlines what transportation projects are planned for the next four years.
“AMHS Tustumena Replacement Vessel” is listed in the amendment with a total estimated cost of $237 million.
About 90 percent of the money would come from the federal government. The remaining 10 percent is expected to come from the ferry system’s vessel replacement fund, which has a balance of $49 million, according to figures provided by the Alaska Office of Management and Budget.
Michael Neussl is the deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation in charge of the ferry system.
“The next hurdle along the line of hurdles is money. We have to get the funding in place to award that construction contract,” he said.
That hurdle is a big one.
“Where are we getting the money? The state’s broke. You’re going to hear that,” said Rep. Stutes.
The Alaska Legislature finished its second special session in July without fully closing the gap on Alaska’s now-$3 billion budget deficit.
With state savings forecast to run out by 2020, Walker is expected to propose a miniscule budget in December, his deadline for delivering next year’s proposal for the Legislature.
There will be significant pressure on all parts of state government to make do and avoid significant expenses. That pressure will fall on the ferry system, too.