By Melinda Munson

A crowded ferry bound for Skagway turned back 2.5 hours into the journey on Nov. 19. The LeConte returned to Juneau with its 190 passengers, offloaded several pieces of heavy machinery and a few cars, then headed north again. The reason given for the delay was “freezing spray conditions,” according to a Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT) press release.

Not everyone who was part of the first leg of the journey was present for the re-do.

Passengers Karla and Duff Ray opted to disembark in Juneau and fly home to Skagway. Karla said from the moment the ferry left the dock in Juneau, they noticed “this thing’s loaded heavy on the left.”

When the crew announced the ferry was overloaded and needed to return to port, the Rays didn’t feel safe continuing on the Alaska Marine Highway vessel. 

The DOT posted a press release on its Facebook page explaining why the LeConte turned around.

“Lynn Canal had high winds and low temperatures today, perfect conditions for icing on a ship. We’re particularly cautious about weight gain from freezing spray, especially higher up on the vessel and on the hull. As ice builds up on surfaces, the ship becomes sluggish to respond, and the captain notices changes to its handling. The weight of the ice raises the center of gravity, and at that point, the ship can be prone to rolling over very easily. The sea state has very little to do with a ship rolling over in that type of situation.”

The uncaptioned photo that accompanied the press release showed the LeConte with thick ice covering its bow. Sam Dapcevich, spokesperson for DOT, confirmed the image shown was not taken Nov. 19.

According to the National Weather Service, the high temperature that day was 31 degrees with a low of 20. The ferry left the Juneau dock for the first time at 7 a.m. Passengers who spoke to The Skagway News reported seeing minimal or no ice throughout the trip, although they did see small amounts of snow. 

Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata was traveling on the ferry with his wife, Brittney. They were making their fourth attempt to return home, the first three on unsuccessful flights due to poor weather.

Cremata noticed the ferry was “listing hard to port” upon departure.

Cremata didn’t feel the weather on Nov. 19 was particularly challenging.

“The weather wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t that rough, It wasn’t that cold,” he said.

Skagway resident Juliene Price was on the LeConte with her infant daughter. She was surprised during the loading procedure.

“As the car deck was loading in Auke Bay, I saw a few large machinery loaded on … The moment they were loaded the whole boat listed starboard big time, then portside, and stayed that way. I was sitting in the middle of the room up front, and when you looked out the window the horizon on the left had a lot more water under it than the horizon on the right. The boat was off balance big time. I found myself leaning to the right in my chair, as if that would help off-set the balance,” she said.

Price then described what happened when the LeConte  “…the moment those machinery were offloaded the boat lifted out of the water and evened out. The horizon out the front of the boat was one nice even line, and off we went north again.” 

The ship left Juneau again at 1:30 p.m. after the “LeConte’s stability numbers were recalculated,” according to the press release.

Price and her baby remained on the ferry for what would eventually become a 14-hour journey. 

When asked to explain why passengers observed the ferry leaning to port prior to the original departure, Dapcevich responded with the following.

“It may have been listing when it left, but it was within proper load calculation,” he said.