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Ferry Tustumena has some life left, but a replacement is on the way

Jim PaulinDutch Harbor Fisherman
The ferry Tustumena, which connects communities from Homer to Dutch Harbor/Unalaska, has some life left, but a replacement vessel is being designed.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Following a year in the shipyard marked by false hopes and setbacks, the venerable Tusty is coming back in the spring, and a brand new ferry is on the drawing board. 

The fixed-up state ferry Tustemena is “alive and well” and  “mechanically in very good shape right now,” Capt. John Falvey, the general manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System, told the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference last week.

The ship, which serves Southwest Alaska, was out of service for a whole year before finally returning in October, causing economic hardship to small businesses and individuals in the 11 communities serviced by the ferry system between Kodiak Island and Unalaska.

SWAMC, composed of representatives of local governments and Native corporations and other businesses and nonprofit organizations, called for the state to fully fund the construction of a new vessel, estimated at between $175 and $210 million.

“The rough and exposed waters of the Aleutians can accelerate the deterioration of any vessel servicing the region, and recent vessel aging problems and repair delays are well documented and have created significant, recurring service disruptions and outages in the region,” according to the SWAMC resolution.

Falvey reported “five to 10 good years” remaining in the 50-year-old vintage passenger and vehicle transport, which plies the Aleutian Chain in summer months.

Meanwhile, Falvey said replacement plans are “well underway,” and a Seattle naval architect, Glosten Associates, is designing a new and larger boat. The final design is expected in June 2015, and SWAMC then wants “an immediate start of vessel construction,” estimated to take two to three years.

The new ship will be longer, wider, a little deeper, and carry way more people and more vehicles, Falvey said.  It will be 325 feet long and 68 feet wide, more footage each way than the 296-by-50-foot veteran vessel. Passenger capacity rises from 174 to 250. And even with efficiencies due to more automation, the jumbo version will still need a few more workers, with the crew size increasing from 38 to 42.

“A lot more cars” can make the trip between Unalaska and Homer, Falvey said, at 52, up from 36 maximum on the existing vessel, thanks to an increase in parking lane length from 720 to 1,135 feet below decks.

Faster passages are another benefit, with the maximum speed topping off at 15 knots per hours, up from 13.8 knots. Time spent on vehicles in port could be cut substantially with side-loading doors for cars and trucks to drive on and off the vessel from new floating docks alongside the ship in Kodiak and Homer, according to Falvey.

Falvey said public meetings are set for Kodiak, Homer, and Unalaska, followed by meetings in the smaller communities served by the Tustemena in May or June. Details still need to be worked out on the small port visits: “Maybe we can ride the Tusty down the Chain and hold the meetings.”

Passenger and vehicle fares haven’t changed since 2007, but are now being reviewed, he said. A conference attendee from Kodiak complained that commercial vehicles get free electricity when they plug refrigeration systems into the vessel’s power system, with the cost passed onto other travelers.

Falvey said the ferry system doesn’t have a way to measure electricity used by the vehicles, but promised a “closer look.”

The Tustemena’s Aleutian trips only happen between April and October, and not in the winter, because “weatherwise it becomes very challenging,” said Falvey, in response a question about the lack of year-round service. The vessel makes two trips per month during the peak season between Homer and Unalaska/Dutch Harbor.

At the event, at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska maritime historian Penelope Goforth noted that the region’s frequency of government-provided ocean passenger service has hardly changed in the past two centuries, dating back to the 1890s.