Editor’s note: This is the second 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.
The ferry Tustumena is cracked and is showing its age. The Alaska Marine Highway System knows this.
It knows something else, too.
“The ship is safe. I have no concerns about operating this ship in the North Pacific Ocean,” said Mike Neussl, head of AMHS, in July.
The U.S. Coast Guard agrees, and so does the American Bureau of Shipping. Both agencies inspect the state’s ferries for safety.
Coast Guard Cmdr. Michael R. Franklin is chief of the inspections division at Coast Guard Sector Anchorage. “Both ABS and Coast Guard have certified it as safe,” he said by phone from Anchorage.
All three services have declared the Tustumena safe, even after Patrick Eberhardt of Coastwise Corp., the sole naval architecture firm in Alaska, found significant cracking in the ship’s primary structure earlier this year.
When Eberhardt found those cracks, he demanded AMHS restrict the Tustumena’s operations: No more cross-Gulf sailings in winter, and keep the ship within a set distance of land.
The Coast Guard doesn’t agree.
“That’s a third-party report; that’s not a regulatory report,” Franklin said of Eberhardt’s recommendations. “We don’t see the need for the restriction because it is in good service.”
Nevertheless, the Marine Highway has followed Eberhardt’s recommendations and is pressing ahead with plans to build a replacement Tustumena at a cost of more than $200 million.
If the Tustumena is safe to operate, why is the Marine Highway so eager to replace it?
“At a certain point, with the effort required and the time required and the money required to maintain it, it makes more sense to replace it,” Neussl said.
When it comes to replacing ferries, few people know more than Mark Collins, vice president of strategic planning and community engagement for BC Ferries, which serves British Columbia with the largest fleet in North America.
BC Ferries operates 34 vessels, 10 more than Washington State Ferries, the largest fleet in the United States.
“There is no one single measure or parameter that answers the question” of when a ferry should be replaced, Collins said.
While the Tustumena is 52 years old, that simple fact doesn’t tell the whole story. Instead, ferry systems look at “risk factors,” he explained. There are four broad factors that go into a decision to replace a ferry: the quality of the original build, obsolescence, mechanical and structural conditions, then social risks.
He compared operating a ferry to driving an older car. “It’s always cheaper to keep my old beater going … but at some point, these other factors come in despite it being a financially optimal course,” he said.
An unusual build
When it comes to the Tustumena’s original build, the quality should be self-evident, says naval architect John Waterhouse of Elliott Bay Design Group in Seattle. “Clearly, the ship has been designed correctly for the stresses because it has been in service for almost 50 years,” he said by phone.
“You can’t argue with that kind of success,” said Eberhardt of Coastwise, “but that’s not an engineering answer that helps us determine when the end of life occurs.”
Furthermore, Eberhardt and others have argued that the extensive changes to the Tustumena since its initial construction have put unpredicted stresses on the vessel.
The Tustumena was originally designed to travel between Anchorage and Kodiak. Built in Wisconsin, it was the victim of cost-cutting efforts. Instead of 305-foot ship, the Wisconsin shipyard turned out a 240-foot one.
“I’m well pleased with the Tustumena,” Gov. Bill Egan told an Empire reporter when the new ship arrived in Juneau for the first time in 1964. “She’s a tight little ship and should be a great asset to the economy of Alaska when she begins to ply her way between westward ports.”
Kodiak residents dubbed the new ship the “Trusty Tusty,” but National Geographic took a somewhat dimmer view when it dubbed a Tustumena cruise “the Dramamine Express.”
That was more than rhetorical flourish. In 1969, the Tustumena returned to the shipyard and was cut in half to allow the addition of a 56-foot-long middle section and other modifications intended to stabilize it.
The ship was again expanded in 1988 when its superstructure was lengthened by 20 feet.
Eberhardt said it’s possible that when the Tustumena was lengthened, it was weakened. He compared the situation to a long wooden beam. A short beam can support heavier loads without bending or breaking than a longer beam of the same thickness.
The newly added section might have been designed well, he explained, “but you’re still left with the remaining structure fore and aft.”
Adding to his concerns is the fact that he can’t find any structural calculations used in the Tustumena’s design. There’s no data about the waves the ship was designed to withstand.
“I could never lay my hands on any kinds of structural calculations on this vessel,” he said. “In the absence of this structural data, that was one of the risk factors.”
Partially because of pressure from Eberhardt, the Alaska Marine Highway System has issued a contract worth as much as $500,000 to Waterhouse’s Elliott Bay Design Group in order to perform those calculations by Oct. 1.
As Neussl explained, the analysis is expensive, but it will give the state one of three possible answers: “The structure is adequate and capable of handling the loads; or those limits that we have emplaced are now mandatory and have to remain in place because the structure is not adequate and will crack again if we exceed those limits. Or — hopefully not — this is extremely poorly designed and it will crack no matter what you do, and you should replace it. Hopefully it will not be that.”