By Larry Persily

The Wrangell Sentinal

The 58-year-old Matanuska, the oldest working vessel in the state ferry fleet, has had troubles operating the past two months. 

The Alaska Marine Highway System took the ship out of service to fix a mechanical problem, canceling port calls Saturday through Thursday last week. The ferry resumed its weekly run out of Bellingham, Washington, on April 2.

 The delay was too long for Courtney Ellingson, Skagway City School’s third grade teacher, stranded in Haines. She caught a ride on a helicopter that happened to be headed to Skagway. 

Juliene Price Miles’ family was detained in Juneau after she gave birth to their second child. Miles, her husband and their three-year-old son, were crammed into a hotel room, waiting to get their car and their new addition (a girl) back home to Skagway. 

“Being stuck was stressful during a time that is already stressful, “ Miles said. 

“Five years ago, that (broken ferry) would have been no big deal because there were three to four ferries a week in the winter.”

“The ship’s engineers identified a broken crab nut on the vessel’s starboard engine,” state Transportation Department spokesman Sam Dapcevich said regarding the Matanuska. “A replacement crab nut was sent to Bellingham off the Hubbard, which has similar engines. A factory technician installed the new part and the starboard engine is now operating as required.” The Hubbard is not in service, awaiting modifications.

“As the engines are still under warranty, the technicians decided to inspect all the power-pack units … on both port and starboard engines,” Dapcevich said. “They discovered two defective power-pack cylinder units on the port engine. Replacement power-pack cylinder units were shipped from Louisiana,” he said. 

A month earlier, the 408-foot-long Matanuska was out of service in February with problems in its port-side reduction gear box, which prevented the propeller from going in reverse.

The ship was also pulled out of service mid-March, prompting the municipality of Skagway to charter an Allen Marine catamaran at $900 an hour to move stranded travelers in and out of Haines and Skagway at the head of Lynn Canal to Juneau on March 16.

The Matanuska was out of service for almost the entire first half of 2020 for extensive repairs to its reduction-gear system, leaving Southeast communities with no ferry runs for almost two months until another ship could be pulled into service.

It was a troubled return to service for the ship after an almost two-year stint in the Vigor shipyard in Ketchikan 2018-2019 for new engines and other extensive work.

“We spent slightly north of $40 million (in federal dollars) on that ship,” John Falvey, Alaska Marine Highway System general manager, told the Senate Transportation Committee on Feb. 23.

 The ship’s sister ship, the Malaspina, has been held out of service since late 2019, tied up in Ward Cove in Ketchikan to save money and due to a lack of funds for repairs. It needs at least $16 million in steel replacement work, Falvey told the Senate committee. Its engines are the originals from 1963, and could cost $30 million to replace, he said.

“That’s a lot of money for a ship that is 58 years old,” Falvey said.

The state plans to sell or otherwise get rid of the Malaspina. 

Sinking the ferry as an artificial reef may make more financial sense than repairing it, Transportation Department Deputy Commissioner Rob Carpenter told legislators last week.

The Columbia, the largest ship in the fleet and “only” 48 years old, is out of service and in need of repairs, too, though not as expensive as the Malaspina.

The Columbia is in Ketchikan for a money-saving layup pending an overhaul. It will get some new steel and is in the design phase to replace its variable-pitch propellers, Falvey told the Senate committee. He expects the work will be done this fall and winter.

Looking longer term, the ferry system will need a mainline vessel to replace the Columbia and Matanuska, at an estimated construction cost of $300 million, the Transportation Department told the House Transportation Committee on March 18.

The disabled Matanuska was a familiar scenario for Reba Hylton, a Skagway resident who was marooned in Juneau, with her 8-year-old son, after a spring break trek to Southcentral Alaska.

“It’s one of the prices we pay to live here. Other places have high crime rates, dirty water, smog, traffic. We have canceled ferries. It’s just part of life here,” she said.


Melinda Munson contributed to this story.