The Kennicott, an Alaska Marine Highway System ferry that's on temporary duty serving the southwest Alaska "chain run" from Homer to the Aleutian Islands, is up and running after a 33-hour delay last week that left some passengers and their vehicles stranded.
The incident illustrates the difficulties facing the Alaska Marine Highway in serving the remote communities of Southwest Alaska with an aging ferry and limited backup options.
"It's a very difficult situation," said Aurah Landau, a Department of Transportation spokeswoman.
The Kennicott ferry is scheduled to sail the "chain run" from Homer to Dutch Harbor until at least May, when the route's regular ferry, the Tustumena, is finished with winter repairs, said Aurah Landau of the Alaska Marine Highway System.
But the first sailing of the year was delayed when the elevator that loads cars on and off the Kennicott broke in Kodiak. Fixing the problem involved recoding the computer system that runs the elevator, Landau said.
Some people booked on the Saturday sailing missed it altogether and told public radio station KBBI their vehicles would be stuck in Homer for weeks before they'd have a chance to get them on another sailing.
Last year, more than half of the summer's sailings of the route that typically runs from Homer to Dutch Harbor were cancelled due to maintenance problems with the Tustumena.
Only two oceangoing ferries can do the chain run: The Tustumena and the Kennicott, which usually sails the route from Bellingham, Washington, to Whittier.
The Tustumena is 54 years old. The state has secured federal funding for a replacement, but the project is still in initial stages, Landau said. A contract has not yet been put out for bid.
The replacement Tustumena will not be completed for up to four years, Landau said. In the meantime, the old one is the ferry system's only choice to run the route. This year inspectors found "a bunch of rusted steel in the hull and ballast tanks" that needs to be repaired before it can sail, Landau said.
Fixing the decay found this year will cost about double the $1 million budget set aside for Tustumena repairs, she said.
This year, the DOT built extra time into the schedule for repairing the Tustumena. The Kennicott can cover the route if needed until the end of May.
Is there a backup plan if neither the Tustumena and Kennicott can run the route?
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Landau said.
People in communities along the route such as Cold Bay, Sand Point and Unalaska use the ferry to transport everything from vehicles to construction equipment and livestock. It's as crucial to their lives and businesses as the Alaska Highway that connects Alaska to Canada and the continental United States, said Landau.
"We see it as an absolutely essential transportation service," she said.