JUNEAU — An Alaska-built ferry sailed its maiden voyage with passengers Tuesday, 17 years after it was first envisioned.
The 280-foot Hubbard took more than four years to come into service after construction had finished because crew quarters had not been part of the ship’s original design. Coast Guard regulations limit ferry crews to 12 hours of work per day.
Capt. Darwin Jensen, commander of Coast Guard Sector Juneau, presented the Hubbard’s certificate of inspection to the ship’s two captains Monday — the final hurdle before passenger service could begin. Alaska Marine Highway System officials, including state Department of Transportation Commissioner Ryan Anderson, were on hand for the short ceremony.
The Hubbard is one of two Alaska-class ferries. Along with the Tazlina, the two ships were the first and only ferries built in Alaska, at a cost of $60 million each. Installing crew quarters has been estimated to cost an additional $30 million for both ships, but the final figure could be higher.
The Alaska-class ferry project was first conceived in 2006. The ferries were intended to shuttle passengers from Juneau to Haines and Skagway for day trips. Then-Gov. Frank Murkowski wanted to extend Juneau’s road north to shorten the 14-hour journey, but that plan was eventually shelved.
By late 2018, the Hubbard was completed and ready to carry passengers, but its first sailing has been long delayed. Three years later, the Alaska Marine Highway System opened the bidding process to install the crew quarters to extend the ferry’s range and capabilities.
The Hubbard departed from Ketchikan carrying crew members last Thursday. After its first long voyage, Capt. Gabriel Baylous said the ship was smooth and could handle regularly sailing the Inside Passage down to Ketchikan. On Tuesday morning, the ferry set sail from Juneau.
“I think this is going to be a big positive for Southeast Alaska. We’re gonna have better service up Lynn Canal and better service to the surrounding communities,” said Sam Dapcevich, a spokesperson for the Alaska Marine Highway System. “So it’s a big step forward.”
The Hubbard can carry 300 passengers and 53 vehicles. Unlike other Alaska ferries, the Hubbard doesn’t have a large galley, meaning hot food will not initially be offered to passengers.
Docks in several communities like Tatitlek, Chenega and Pelican still need to be upgraded to accommodate the Alaska-class ferries. But the Hubbard will be used just for sailings up the Lynn Canal from Juneau to Haines and Skagway — for now.
The Tazlina, which has been in service since 2019, recently sailed to Ketchikan from Auke Bay outside of Juneau. The Alaska Marine Highway System plans to outfit the ferry with its own crew quarters, but there is no cost estimate or timeline for when that will be completed.
Robert Venables, executive director of Southeast Conference, said it was good to see the Hubbard starting passenger service with its new crew quarters, adding, “It will be interesting to see how performance is impacted before any changes are made to the Tazlina.”
Six of nine Alaska ferries are currently in service for the summer. Dapcevich said the Kennicott would not be running across the Gulf of Alaska due to staffing shortages, but recruitment efforts are ongoing.
The 60-year-old Matanuska is in overhaul in Ketchikan and currently being used for staff housing. The aging mainline vessel “requires some pretty extensive steel work,” Dapcevich said. The cost of repairs could run into the tens of millions of dollars, and it remains unclear whether the ferry will return to service.
Dapcevich said there are ongoing discussions about replacing the Matanuska with a new mainline ferry for Southeast Alaska, alongside a much more well-developed plan to replace the 59-year-old Tustumena. The unnamed Tustumena replacement vessel could be ready to carry passengers in 2027 or 2028, he said.