Mat-Su puts unwanted ferry in layup status

Zaz Hollander

PALMER -- The world's only icebreaking catamaran is getting parked at the dock.

Struggling to rein in costs, the Mat-Su Borough will put the ferry M/V Susitna into layup near Ketchikan - at least temporarily - to save money on fuel, staffing, insurance and utilities.

The borough got the unique $78 million U.S. Navy prototype for free but funding hurdles and other roadblocks stymied plans to operate the 198-foot vessel as a ferry in Cook Inlet.

After taking ownership in April 2012, the borough moved the ferry to Ward Cove near the Ketchikan shipyard where it was built.

Officials started trying to sell the Susitna more than a year ago. Meanwhile, it has cost about $1.2 million to keep the ferry at Ward Cove and prepared for potential buyers looking to do a test run.

As of this month, officials say, no suitable offers have arrived

"We wanted it full bore, ready to go," Borough Manager John Moosey said of the need to keep the ferry ready for a buyer. "That's not happening."

The borough was paying roughly $70,000 a month for insurance, dockage, security and other costs, according to Moosey. Post-layup, those costs will drop to under $29,000.

Until now, a crew ran the ferry out to the ocean once a month. Now the ferry will stay at the dock. An engineer will fire up the generators and the main engines once a month.

The so-called "wet layup" will cost $12,400, include flushing lines and draining sanitary systems, and should be done by early November, said the ferry's captain, J.P. Stormont, a Wasilla resident who flies to Ketchikan every month to work on the Susitna.

The captain is a little worried about the borough's fancy ship.

Stormont said he's concerned Ketchikan's 18-foot tides and temperamental winds could batter the Susitna. He's also not happy about the effect of prolonged inactivity on the vessel's complex machinery: scores of valves, a ballasting system and a hydraulic barge deck.

"It bothers me leaving the vessel alone, bouncing around in the wind," Stormont said Wednesday. "If you're on it, you can tighten up lines and take precautions. Once it's blowing and things are happening, you're not going to do anything from the dock."

The Mat-Su Assembly approved the layup with little discussion at a meeting Tuesday night. The Assembly canceled a scheduled closed-door executive session to talk about options for ferry disposal and federal grant liability.

Few offers have come in for the ferry. A $6 million offer fell through in May. The borough didn't act on several offers ranging from $1 million to $2 million, the latter from an Abu Dhabi company that hoped to use the ferry in the islands of the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi Mar LLC last month offered to pay Ward Cove fees until the sale finalized.

Driving the call for higher offers: The borough is on the hook for at least $6 million in grants from the Federal Transit Administration unless the ferry goes into service in Cook Inlet or a government entity buys it

In recent months, a number of Mat-Su Assembly members have said they want to bring the ferry up to Cook Inlet and find a partner to operate it. The Assembly in August voted to pursue dry docking the ferry at Port MacKenzie until then, though those plans have since stalled.

Meanwhile, borough port director Marc Van Dongen said he continues to market the ferry.

Van Dongen said he sent out a mid-September package to more than 400 ship brokers offering commissions ranging from 20 percent for a $9 million offer to 5 percent for $6 million.

He also said he placed an ad in "Foghorn Magazine" -- the official publication of the Passenger Vessel Association -- offering the ferry for free to ferry operators who meet Federal Transit Administration guidelines.

Once the ferry is in layup, however, it will need work before sailing, Moosey said.

"If we have a buyer, somebody may need to expend some money to get it ready to take it out," he said. "I don't know what that is. I'm just happy to reduce the cost."


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