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Troubled ferry Tustumena set to return Oct. 1 serving remote Alaskans

Pat Forgey
The ferry Tustumena usually connects remote communities in the Aleutians to the rest of Alaska, but repeated delays to repairs have kept it from returning to service.
US Fish and Wildlife Service

JUNEAU -- Gulf of Alaska communities that have seen little, come cases no, ferry service for almost a year are now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. The Alaska Marine Highway System says the troubled ferry Tustumena should be back in service by Oct. 1, but it is making backup plans, just in case.

"I'm very, very hopeful the Tustumena will be back in the water by Sept. 6, but there are quite a few things to be done in the water after that," said Capt. John Falvey, general manager of the state ferry system.

The 49-year-old Tustumena entered a major overhaul at Seward Ship’s Drydock, but has been repeatedly delayed returning to service. First, the ferry needed unanticipated repairs after unexpected deterioration was discovered. Then, the work done at the Seward shipyard was not up to standard and had to be redone.

The delay meant that communities ranging from the Kenai Peninsula to Kodiak Island to out the Aleutian chain were without service during the summer. While another ferry, the Kennicott, made some trips to the area when it was available last spring, there were at least five small communities that it was unable to serve.

Now that AMHS is hoping to have the Tustumena in the water and preparing for an Oct. 1 resumption of service, Falvey said he's hedging his bets.

Before the Tustumena is scheduled to return Oct. 1, the AMHS will send the Kennicott down the Aleutian chain to provide interim service, after it has been freed up following its summertime duties.

Falvey said they're also taking another step to ensue they'll be able to provide service if the Tustumena is unable to go on Oct. 1. The Kennicott is scheduled to undergo an overhaul during the winter, but Falvey said the ship won't be committed to that overhaul until they know whether the Tustumena is ready to go.

The work still to be done on the Tustumena include new balance calculations that have to be completed and approved by the Coast Guard before it can resume carrying passengers.

Falvey said the Coast Guard's Alaska officers have been working with the experts who will do those calculations to speed that process. They usually take weeks or multiple weeks to do, but the Anchorage office has been working to fast track that approval, he said.

Even so, there's no guarantee the Tustumena will be ready, Falvey acknowledged.

"I'll be quite honest, that ship hasn't run in almost a year," he said. "There'll be things that come up, but hopefully it's minor."

If the Tustumena is not ready to, the Kennicott will be able available to provide service, he said.

"We won't abandon that area," he said.

But while the Kennicott can handle the Gulf weather, it can't get into five small ports, including Port Lions, Ouzinkie, Chignik, False Pass and Akutan.

"I wish we could get that ship into those ports, but it's too big," he said.

The problems stemming from the Kennicott's size include too shallow water at those ports, or narrow channels, or small or unstable docks.

The move to call on the Kennicott for interim service was praised by the Aleutians East Borough, even though it couldn't serve some ports. Borough official Ernie Weiss called it "unfortunate" what had happened with Tustumena.

The Aleutian chain communities, especially those that can't be served by the Kennicott have been hit hard by the lack of service he said.

"It's important to understand how people in the Southwest chain communities have had their lives disrupted" by the lack of ferry service, Weiss said. That ranges from shopping to business to medical appointments, he said.

Despite concerns about the future of the Tustumena, Falvey said he was confident the vessel would last the several years it would take until its scheduled replacement.

"I feel that once we get the Tustumena back in the water, we'll have multiple years of service left in that ship," he said. "That's my professional opinion, and I've been doing this for a long time."

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com