Ketchikan shipbuilder dreamed big

Lisa Demer
LISA DEMER / Anchorage Daily News

Before the Susitna, the state-owned, privately run Alaska Ship & Drydock had built just a couple of vessels: a much smaller and simpler roll-on, roll-off ferry for the Ketchikan airport and a marine fueling barge delivered to Vancouver.

"It was a tremendous leap from building an airport ferry to building a sophisticated ship like Susitna," said Randy Johnson, the shipyard president.

A big shipyard might have trouble modifying its usual procedures for such a novel ship, said retired Rear Adm. Jay M. Cohen, chief of naval research from 2000 to 2006.

The Navy, the Mat-Su Borough and the shipyard joined together for the Susitna project.

A small shipyard can be more flexible and innovative, something the Navy wants to encourage, Cohen said. Alaska Ship & Drydock earlier had done a complex Navy project, retrofitting barges used in nuclear submarine tests performed at Back Island, near Ketchikan.

Like the naval architect who created the blueprint for the complex ship's construction, Johnson lost sleep over how to get the job done right.

He had gambled before. When he took over the old cannery-turned-shipyard in 1993, he said, two earlier operators had failed to make a go of it. The yard had been dormant for two years. He knew nothing about ship repairs or shipbuilding. He just wanted to generate year-round work for his construction crews.

But his bold move paid off. The Ketchikan yard is in the midst of an $80 million expansion and is building a second airport ferry for $7.5 million, more than double what it received for the first one.

The Susitna project is by far the shipyard's biggest. It generated $71 million for the yard and its subcontractors.

Johnson's crews designed and fabricated a press to shape panels of steel that became the hulls. They welded together multiple grades and thicknesses of steel, which was a challenge to do without distortion. In the end, the ship was built to one-sixteenth-of-an-inch tolerances.

They built most of the ship in 36-foot modules. They installed modules into blocks and blocks into superblocks. They had the aluminum barge deck built Outside, as well as the twin passenger houses, but made the rest of the ship in Ketchikan, including the pilot house.

"It was one of the most complex ship-building projects that you could possibly imagine, and the performance of the Ketchikan shipyard truly should be applauded," U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska and the ship's official sponsor, said in an email.

"Alaska's maritime industries are now getting on the map," said Doug Ward, the shipyard's development director.

Reach Lisa Demer at

Contact Lisa Demer at or on