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Rural Alaska

More delays announced for Tustumena ferry

The Tustumena approaches Cold Bay on July 19, 2015. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

The summer's first sailing of the ferry Tustumena will be delayed until late August after more wasted steel was found in the engine room of the aging ship, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities announced Monday.

The 53-year-old ferry was originally scheduled to make 10 trips up and down the Aleutian chain starting in May, sailing from Homer to Akutan and back. People on the isolated, roadless island and in coastal communities in the region use the ferry to transport cargo like vehicles, groceries and household supplies.

At best, the Tustumena will now leave Homer on its first "chain run" of the summer Aug. 22, according to the state. The ferry will have time for only three trips before weather in the North Pacific becomes too severe.

Wasted steel found during an inspection in early May cut the 2017 schedule down to five trips, causing headaches for already-booked customers, who included both locals and tourists. The delayed first sailing was supposed to commence July 18.

Workers repairing the pocked, corroded steel found more damage in the process, said Alaska DOT spokeswoman Meadow Bailey.

"They go through and test the thickness of the steel, and if it's less than a certain thickness, it has to be replaced," she said.

Tustumena riders take in the sights along the Alaska coastline west of Sand Point on July 19, 2015. (Marc Lester / ADN)

The new August sailing date depends on the repairs to the ship being completed on time — and passing a U.S. Coast Guard safety inspection. It will also put the ship sailing in late summer and early fall in the North Pacific, a stormy time of year.

The cancellations "impact a lot of people, and it is very inconvenient," Bailey said. But there's just no choice, she said.

Safety is the priority, and the ferry cannot sail until it passes the Coast Guard's inspection.

"We have to have these repairs complete," she said.

Steel wastage is a sign of the boat's age. A replacement for the Tustumena has been designed, and is waiting on construction funding in the pending 2018 capital budget, Bailey said.

The state will rely on the Tustumena to run the Southwest Alaska ferry service for five or six more summers before the replacement ship is completed, she said.

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