JUNEAU -- The Alaska Marine Highway System's ferry Tustumena is being welcomed back this week as an old friend in communities that rely on it, and ferry officials say its recent overhaul has the vessel ready for several more years of service.
When the Tustumena finally arrived in Seldovia after its nearly year-long overhaul, the community was thrilled, said Chamber of Commerce President Ian McGaughey.
"I was actually hiking, and I could hear the horn and my heart just swelled -- it means that much to us," McGaughey said.
In the Tustumena's absence, everything from getting cars in and out of town to keeping medical appointments has been difficult and expensive, he said.
Some communities lost service entirely, but even the limited service that Kodiak got left a hole that's been difficult to fill, said Bob Brodie with the Kodiak Booster Club.
"It's been a huge hardship on the sports teams in Kodiak," he said, as well as for the Coast Guard, the neighboring villages and others.
The booster club helps out with travel for junior varsity teams, as well as activities such as band and student council.
"Instead of being able to take 30 kids to a meet on the Tusty, we've been down to 15 or 20," he said. Less experience for younger athletes will have a long-term effect, he said.
The booster club has committed $105,000 to that effort this year, but also had to make up an additional $9,000 cost from last year, he said, with its game concession stands and the Bear's Den, the snack bar at Kodiak High School.
"We're raising this money one sports drink and one granola bar at a time," he said.
That's why getting the Tustumena back in service is so important.
The Tustumena began its regular runs from the Kenai Peninsula communities of Seldovia and Homer, and the Kodiak Island Borough communities of Kodiak, Ouzinkie and Port Lions this week. When summertime Aleutians service begins next spring, it will provide that service as well -- for the first time in about a year and a half.
Alaska Marine Highway spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said the Tustumena's crew is already praising their overhauled ship. "The captain of the ship said the boat's in great shape, probably the best shape that it's been in recent years," he said.
Alaska Marine Highway also praised the U.S. Coast Guard for its assistance with the troubled overhaul. The Tustumena's return from the Seward Ship's Drydock was delayed and then happened during the federal government shutdown. That left the Coast Guard short-staffed at a time when it was needed to analyze and approve new stability certifications before the Tusty could carry passengers.
"The Coast Guard really did an incredible job acknowledging the need to get the Tustumena back in service as soon as possible," he said.
Despite being understaffed due to the shutdown, they were able to turn the certification paperwork around in time for last Sunday's resumption of service, Woodrow said.
The Tustumena is one of the oldest vessels in the Alaska Marine Highway fleet, entering service in 1964. The ferry system has begun a multi-year process of designing and building a new mainline ferry to replace it
Ferry General Manager John Falvey said the recent overhaul ensures the Tustumena will be able to continue to provide reliable service until the new vessel is ready.
Simultaneously, the Alaska Marine Highway is in the middle of a separate process to design and build new Alaska-class ferries to serve Southeast Alaska and replace even older ferries.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included incorrect vehicle booking numbers.
Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com