KETCHIKAN -- On a calm day last February, the Mat-Su Borough's new ferryboat pulled away from the dock in Ketchikan and glided north through Tongass Narrows so smoothly that it barely seemed to move. The captain hired for sea trials said the Susitna drove like a sports car. One of its inventors climbed below to check out a persistent vibration but overall he was pleased with its performance. A prospective client came along for the ride.
The borough soon will possess a ship like no other, a marvel of engineering and craftsmanship, say those involved. Its unique barge deck can rise for faster sailing and lower for beach landings. It's the world's first twin-hulled vessel that can break through ice. It's complicated but not fragile, said Lew Madden, a retired Navy captain and the ferry's co-inventor.
But it's also a boat in search of a purpose. Years after it was conceived, there's still no place on either side of Cook Inlet for it to dock, no plan for how it will be used, and big questions abound over ongoing costs, assuming it ever goes into operation. The borough has so far managed to keep its costs low by using federal money, but there's no guarantee such largesse will continue in an era of budget cutting.
The 195-foot-long, steel and aluminum ship is undergoing final inspections at the small Ketchikan shipyard where it was built. State ferry blue and adorned with graphic golden waves, the Susitna is a head turner.
The ship was born out of an odd but opportune partnership. It's a U.S. Navy prototype that will be owned and operated by the Mat-Su Borough.
Part amphibious assault vessel. Part Alaska commuter ferry.
The result is a ship far more expensive than either the borough or the Navy expected and so unusual that some say it's among the most complex commercial ships built in a century.
"I don't know of another design that can work as well in the ice, at speed and with the flexibility, operational flexibility," said retired Rear Adm. Jay M. Cohen, chief of naval research from 2000 to 2006 and one of the Susitna's fans.
While both the borough and the Navy seem impressed with how the ship turned out, neither got exactly what it wanted. It can haul fewer vehicles than the borough envisioned. It's slower than the Navy wanted. And it will have to meet more demanding rules than most passenger vessels, or even Navy ships.
The cost to create the prototype has been about $78 million, counting early design and model testing. Still, as borough officials note, the Navy is paying most of the bills. Much of the money came through earmarks wedged into the Department of Defense budget by then-U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, the late Alaska political powerhouse.
"The Mat-Su Borough and really the Cook Inlet region were given a tremendous gift through this ship," said Elizabeth Gray, assistant borough manager. "We got an $80 million ship we wouldn't have gotten otherwise."
"We're ecstatic about the possibility of running a ferry through the Cook Inlet. We think it's good for Alaska or we wouldn't be doing it."
The ship's story begins with Madden.
Madden graduated from West Anchorage High. He became a Navy helicopter pilot who completed three tours in Vietnam. After the Navy, he went to work for Lockheed Martin, the Bethesda, Md.,-based defense contractor, as a program manager.
In the early 2000s, Madden and other Lockheed engineers in Sunnyvale, Calif., were brainstorming how to make a new kind of landing craft. The Navy was seeking the next generation of the vessel that hit the beaches in Normandy and Iwo Jima in World War II.
Because of their shallow draft, most landing craft are inherently unstable in rough seas. Ships with deeper hulls are more stable but can't pull up on shore.
Madden had an idea.
Why not combine the best of very different ships? Make a boat that would transform from a catamaran-like ship to a barge while at sea. As the idea took hold, he envisioned a barge deck that would lower until it hit the water, adding buoyancy. The twin hulls would rise up until the ship's draft was only 3 or 4 feet, allowing it to beach. An on-board ramp would drop down so that a military tank could roll off.
No one had ever built anything like that.
His design team at Lockheed Martin got to work.
About midway through the project, Madden left Lockheed. He got the Mat-Su Borough interested in the project, and was hired to represent the borough's interests during construction of the Susitna.
Madden's credentials include 13 years at Lockheed and 26 years in the Navy, including a stint as director of anti-submarine warfare systems architecture and engineering. He's a systems engineer with two master's degrees.
Since late 2005, the borough has paid him more than $1 million. That's $150,000 a year plus expenses, capped at $45,000 annually, to monitor construction, design changes, testing and quality assurance. His pay matches what he earned at Lockheed, Madden said. The money has come largely from the Federal Transit Administration.
Mat-Su officials say they wouldn't have gotten the ship without him.
"He has provided a level of expertise we couldn't have found anywhere else," Gray said. "He's the co-inventor of the ship. His early involvement, his intimate knowledge of the design, it gave us the technical expertise to make sure that boat was built correctly."
Madden's work for the borough was supposed to last just over two years, but the ship's unique design was more complicated to engineer and build than expected. His work is now into a sixth year.
A BARELY USED PORT
Most experimental ships end up in scrap yards. They are usually built to small scale and aren't sturdy enough to last long. The military can't put them to practical use, and they aren't designed for commercial activities.
But what if Lockheed's transforming vessel was built with a civilian customer in mind?
Enter the bargain-hunting Mat-Su Borough.
In 2002, Madden visited Anchorage for his 40th high school reunion. He knew the Mat-Su had a new port at Point MacKenzie and was interested in ferry service to jump-start industrial development. The area hasn't taken off like some other parts of the borough. It has farms and cabins, a few homes and businesses, a prison under construction and a minimal port. In 2010, just two ships called there.
By car, the drive from Anchorage to Point MacKenzie is 80 miles. By ferry, the trip shrinks to 2.5 miles, maybe 30 minutes counting loading and unloading. It feels even closer standing on the dock at Port MacKenzie, with its eye-popping views of Anchorage and the Chugach Range.
"It's crazy not to have a ferry," Madden said, "or a bridge sometime down the road."
On that trip in 2002, Madden pitched his idea to then-borough manager John Duffy, an inveterate booster. Before long, the borough was in.
In June 2003, the borough requested proposals for a ferry that could also perform rescues in Upper Cook Inlet.
Two contractors responded: Lockheed Martin, with its novel twin-hulled ship, and a local group that proposed retrofitting an existing vessel.
Lockheed won. The borough hired the company for the first two stages of design. Over several years, the borough paid Lockheed $2.6 million, mainly from federal earmarks.
The borough approached Stevens for help in steering additional funding through Congress. The first grants came through the Federal Transit Administration, which is mainly concerned with urban mass transit.
"It is fair to say that this was a congressionally initiated project," Cohen, the admiral, said.
The Navy officially committed to join the project in 2005, which opened the way for Stevens to funnel most of the money through the Department of Defense.
As a joint borough-military project, the ship became exponentially more complex. The Navy wanted a light, fast ship. The borough wanted a ship heavy enough to break ice and safe for civilian passengers.
Which Cohen said reminds him of the maxim: A camel is a horse designed by committee.
Cohen sought out Guido Perla, a world-renowned naval architect in Seattle.
Initially, "it wasn't supposed to carry passengers or anything. It was something for the military to prove that the concept was right," Perla said.
For a commercial passenger vessel, design standards are much stricter.
"You are transporting kids, women, men, the elderly, old people, young people," Perla said.
Perla frequently quotes his father, who used to say, "As long as there is a book, you are an expert." In the case of the Susitna, there was no book.
Perla laid out his concerns to Cohen during a meeting in Seattle.
"I think he said, 'Admiral, you're nuts,' " Cohen recalled, laughing.
The discussion ended with Perla satisfied that Cohen understood the risks.
Early on, Perla said, his design team brought in the Coast Guard, which enforces U.S. ship regulations, and the American Bureau of Shipping, which sets standards for and classifies ships.
He wanted them involved "because there are no rules for this boat."
Icebreakers normally work by riding over ice and crushing it. With this ship, the leading edges of the hulls are designed to slide under ice and lift it up.
"We plow the ice, like when you are plowing a field," Perla said.
Still docked in ice-free Ketchikan, the ship has not yet proven itself against the pan ice it will encounter in Cook Inlet. A model was successfully tested at a ship research facility in Newfoundland.
The ship, because of its movable deck, essentially has a big hole between the hulls. Look down and the sea is visible in unexpected places. The whole ship is held together by two crossbeams of inch-thick steel.
A DEMAND FOR SPEED
Over the last six years, the budget for design and construction more than doubled.
When the borough first contracted with Lockheed for design work in 2003, it wanted a ship that could be built for no more than $18 million, hold 30 to 50 cars and carry 100 to 150 passengers. A crew of three to five would run it. And it would be completed by 2006.
Even at that price, Talis Colberg, then a Mat-Su Borough assemblyman and later mayor, questioned whether the project was justified. He was the lone "no" vote when the Assembly approved federal transit dollars for the project.
"My view is that we would have never seriously considered building the ferry out of our own budget," said Colberg, now head of Mat-Su College.
The boat is not exactly free to the borough, he said. Maintenance and operational costs are likely to be high for such a unique vessel.
Rather than put construction of the boat out to bid, the Mat-Su Borough and the Navy negotiated with Alaska Ship & Drydock, a small shipyard in Ketchikan that had never built anything like it.
The initial price in August 2005 was just under $30 million for design and construction. The number kept creeping up until finally hitting $71 million in September 2009. That doesn't include $5.5 million, mainly from federal and state grants, that went to the borough for designing and outfitting the vessel, or the $1.4 million Lockheed put into the project early on.
Once the Navy took charge, spending was out of borough control, said Madden, who was by then working for the borough.
Above the cost of the ship, millions more in public money has gone for design and engineering of ferry landings, feasibility studies and a $4.5 million ferry terminal, according to figures provided by the borough.
Of the money spent so far, only about $370,000 has come from the borough's own funds.
Over the years, the design has changed a few times. Steel costs have gone up. And the ship has grown.
Duffy, as borough manager, insisted the ferry be able to haul the biggest vehicle legal on Alaska highways, which meant a redesign. The borough changed the type of landing it wanted to use.
The Navy's demands for speed meant bigger engines, which required bigger hulls to fit them in, which made the ship heavier, which meant even bigger engines.
Perla had experience designing ferries and luxury dinner cruise ships, offshore drilling supply vessels and firefighting boats. He's designed retrofits of sophisticated Navy vessels.
"For me, it was the most demanding project that I ever have had in 40 years of business," Perla said of his work on the Susitna.
From 30 to 50 cars, the borough ended up with a ferry that can hold 20, with about 130 passengers. It will need a crew of five to six or maybe more to operate with passengers; the Coast Guard hasn't made a final decision yet.
The Navy had to settle, too. It wanted a boat that could travel at 30 knots, Cohen said. As it became clear that the steel-hulled ship couldn't sail that fast, the Navy began aiming for a top speed of 20 knots. So far the ship's top speed is 17.75 knots. It weighs more than 1,000 tons fully loaded.
A PORSCHE IN THE WATER
At sea trials around Ketchikan, the ship has performed remarkably well, say members of the crew hired to operate it during testing.
"This thing is like a rock-solid platform," said Capt. J.P. Stormont, who normally operates an Alaska state ferry. "We had it out in 45-knot winds, 10-, 11-foot seas, out in Clarence Strait here. You could just set a cup of coffee right on the counter."
On a blustery day last fall, the crew tried to push the boat's limits, putting it sideways into the trough between rolling waves.
"It just held it straight, right through," chief mate Tryg Westergard said.
Stormont and Westergard took turns at the helm, steering with a little joystick.
Asked to compare state ferries to the Susitna, Stormont had a quick answer: "You've got your Buick and your Chevy. And then you got your Porsche and your Lamborghini. ... This is a sports car here."
The Susitna was named one of the 10 most significant ships of 2010 at the International WorkBoat Show last year in New Orleans.
The Navy doesn't plan to build any more at this point. It paid to install hundreds of sensors on board and will collect data on things like stresses on the hull for several years.
"They proved the concept, and the state of Alaska got a fully operational ferry that is not a burden to the U.S. Navy," Cohen said.
Now the pressure is on the Mat-Su to put the Susitna to good use.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 257-4390.