Trip to dry dock could be Mat-Su ferry's last

Zaz Hollander

The Mat-Su Borough is pursuing plans to dry-dock the $80 million M/V Susitna at Port MacKenzie in hopes of finding a partner to ferry passengers across Cook Inlet.

But some critics -- including the co-inventor of the U.S. Navy prototype -- say the high-speed icebreaking catamaran's voyage to the mud of Point MacKenzie would be its last.

"You might as well dig a hole deep enough to bury it, because that ship will never go to sea again," said Lew Madden, a former Lockheed Martin engineer who helped invent the Susitna's lowering barge and other operating systems.

Madden, a retired U.S. Navy captain and graduate of West High School in Anchorage, served as the borough's ferry consultant and is now affiliated with a group considering the purchase of the ship.

The technologically advanced, twin-hulled ferry could hang in a delicate balance in dry dock. Freeze-thaw cycles could damage or even destroy the Susitna in an extreme situation, Madden said. More likely, he said, harsh winter conditions could damage the ship's complex workings, which include more than 100 remotely-controlled valves, necessitating tricky and pricey repairs.

"The most expensive and difficult option is to dry dock it," Madden said. "This single course of action, they've selected it precipitously and it's the most difficult of all."

Borough officials say they're ready to cut their losses on the ferry, currently being stored for $70,000 a month near the Ketchikan shipyard where it was built.

The borough still owes the Federal Transit Administration $6 million in ferry grant funding, though it got the ship for free thanks to a federal defense earmark from the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.

The grant money doesn't have to get paid back if the borough uses the ferry for its designed purpose - transporting about 130 passengers and 20 cars across Cook Inlet to Anchorage and back. But there's no place for a dock on the Anchorage side, no ferry landing on either side and longstanding questions about operating costs.

The plan

Tuesday night, the Mat-Su Borough Assembly voted 5-2 to direct Borough Manager John Moosey to negotiate a contract with Cruz Construction Inc. for the dry-dock job. The Assembly must approve any agreement. They next meet on Sept. 5.

Cruz Construction wants just under $1 million to do the job, according to borough officials. It will cost another $94,000 to get the Susitna to the port, they estimate.

Cruz representatives declined comment on Wednesday, referring calls to the borough manager.

But according to plans the company submitted this week, Cruz plans to float the Susitna to rest in a trench at the port.

Cruz told borough officials only two tides will be high enough to float the ferry before winter, one in mid-September and another in mid-October.

The company plans to winterize engines, gears and generators for 50 below, according to a project proposal. It would also winterize water and sewer lines, fire pumps and hydraulic systems, and store cold-sensitive navigation items in a borough facility.

Cruz owner Dave Cruz sits on the borough's port commission. His company bid on a previous request for dry-dock proposals more than a year ago, Moosey said. At the time, two bids came in but the Cruz proposal was the only one for Port MacKenzie. The company submitted a reworked version of that proposal to Moosey on Tuesday, hours before the Assembly meeting.

Dry dock vs. sale

The Assembly vote in favor of going forward with dry docking came after members weighed several other options for the ferry, including selling it.

The Assembly couldn't make an informed choice, another critic says, because they couldn't know the hidden costs of dry-docking.

The ferry's captain, J.P. Stormont, noted that the Assembly only weighed the $1.1 million estimate for dry docking against the $840,000 annual ferry storage fee at Ward Cove.

The costs to maintain or refloat the ferry aren't available because nobody's calculated them, Stormont said. He's working with the German company that made the ferry's engines to develop an accurate estimate on the cost to refloat the ship.

"The cost after two years, it will be in the millions if it's going to go into passenger service," he said.

Moosey acknowledged that dry docking comes with risks, though he praised Cruz for using two consultants familiar with the Susitna.

The borough has to balance the risks of dry docking with the chance that selling the ferry won't remedy the borough's financial situation, he said.

If the ferry is sold, even a $2 million offer would leave the borough $4 million short to pay back the federal grant, and another $4.5 million in the hole for a ferry terminal without a ferry.

"By bringing it up here and looking for a partner to run the ferry service, we can fulfill our FTA obligation," Moosey said.

Losing buyers?

The borough currently has offers on the table for as much as $2 million, Moosey said.

Four companies have expressed official interest: Alaska's Hamilton Construction LLC; Workships Contractors B.V. through Washington state broker Marcon International Inc.; Resource Enterprises Inc., headquartered in Panama City; and Vine Trust, a Scottish charitable foundation partnering with San Diego firm One Globe Marine Systems LLC. Another potential buyer has come forward as well, officials say.

Hamilton Construction owner Jeff Hamilton "definitely wants to buy it," said Gerry Briskie, who's helping Hamilton as a broker. The company's offer is about $1 million.

"Dry docking, of course, is going to put them in a position, it's something that'll never be used again," Briskie said. "It's hard to put a piece of equipment that technical into drydock and then have it capable, it would cost so much to put it back in service."

Madden is managing director at One Globe Marine, affiliated with the One Globe Foundation, which funds sustainable infrastructure projects. One Globe has teamed up with Vine Trust, which transports medical workers far up the Amazon.

Representatives from both nonprofits -- some from the United Kingdom and Africa -- had planned to visit the Susitna in Ward Cove this week.

"The nonprofits are now unsure of the borough's intentions and are asking for clarification, " he said. "Otherwise they will not be coming up to evaluate the vessel."

Reach Zaz Hollander at or 257-4317.