A lot of thought has gone into planning the first fast ferry for the Alaska Marine Highway System. Things like neon dolphins and solariums need to be considered, as do Canadian ferry problems, Southeast-style controversies, special safety measures and seasickness.
Officials at the marine highway system should know who will build Alaska's fast ferry by the end of the summer. In drawing up the specifications, designers have had the benefit of a long history of fast ferry use around the world and lessons learned closer to home.
Ferry system officials have pretty much decided on what they want the ships to do, but not exactly how they'll go about doing it.
It's clear that they'll look a lot different and go a lot faster than the existing state ferry fleet, but if the new ships do someday sail in Southeast, they'll have many of the same amenities - a solarium, an observation lounge and a children's play area - Southeast residents have come to expect.
There won't be a cafeteria however, just a snack bar armed with a microwave oven. The only truly new amenity will be a set of cubicles - with hookups for laptop computers - for students.
``We're trying to think of everything,'' said Gary Smith, naval architect for the ferry system.
Baring a blockage of more than $31 million of federal funding for the project, Alaska's first fast ferry is slated to carry passengers from Juneau to Sitka as early as the summer of 2002. Two more, reliant on a bond package proposed by Gov. Tony Knowles, may follow in 2003 and 2004. One of the final two ferries would run up and down Lynn Canal. The other would tie Ketchikan to Wrangell, under current planning.
Bob Doll, head of the Southeast region for the Department of Transportation, said the fast ferries sailing the Inside Passage will be catamarans, which have been built in several countries since the early 1970s.
``We need a proven design,'' he said. ``We're not in a position to take risks and get on the edge of technology.''
If and when the fast ferries are ready to carry passengers, Doll said, the ferry system will get a lot more flexibility. Since they're lower capacity and cost less to run, the system will be better prepared to respond to seasonal changes in demand.
Deborah Dykes, communications coordinator for BC Ferries, said British Columbia's 40-ship, 26-route system put its first fast ferry into the water in July.
It cost about 60 percent more than initially expected, she said from West Vancouver. In November, the company floated its second fast ferry. A third is under construction.
Rather than the 200-foot-long ships carrying 35 cars being considered for Southeast, the BC ships top 400 feet in length and carry 225 cars and 1,000 passengers - all at a top speed of 38 knots.
``We have had a few problems with them,'' Dykes said. There've been engine problems, including occasions where logs got sucked into the water jets on the ships. Also, people have dumped batteries and diapers into the water treatment systems, which caused some problems, she said.
A study is underway to deal with wake concerns, and the third ship will feature modified seating arrangements to address a comfort concern.
Some folks really like the ships, she said, but others haven't. Due to a restriction on commercial traffic, Dykes said, plans to incorporate the fast ferries into the existing BC ferry system have been altered.
``We've slowed down implementation of the fast ferries at this time,'' Dykes said.
Smith of Alaska's DOT said BC Ferries may have ``bitten off more than it could chew.'' The Canadian government decided to build the ships - some of the largest in the world - as well as build facilities to build the ships. It also trained its own people to build the ships.
Alaska's going to have someone else do all that, Smith said.
Also working against BC's big ships, he said, is that they're running on relatively short routes, not taking advantage of a fast ferry's key attribute - speed.
HOW FAST IS FAST ENOUGH
Ferry expert Giles Clark of Kent, England, thinks fast ferries could be a good fit for Southeast, with its mix of regional and tourist traffic.
At 32 knots, Alaska's fast ferries wouldn't be close to the top speeds being turned in by the fastest fast ferries, said Clark, an editor for Fast Ferry International, a magazine that has been covering the industry since 1961.
Today, technology has pushed the practical top speed for fast ferries to near 55 knots. The boats can be designed to go faster, Clark said, but there are limits.
``Water gets very hard at 70 knots,'' Clark said. ``It becomes a very solid thing. The ferry would be fine, but the people bounce.''
Speed, he said, isn't the chief concern for a ferry. Rather, as with any mode of transportation, it's a matter of what you want and need from your vessel.
``There is no point in going at 50 knots if 32 knots will do quite happily,'' Clark said. ``You pay for speed: running costs and engine wear and tear.''
Some wild proposals are on the cutting edge of fast ferry design. There are craft in use in Australia, carrying a handful of passengers, that skim low over the waves like a propeller-driven seagull.
Another fast ferry idea, a Russian one, made it to the pages of Speed at Sea, a trade magazine. The trimaran, which looks a bit like a winged triangular bathroom scale, uses wave-piercing technology. Conceptually, such a ferry could take on 600 passengers and 100 cars, then race through the water at 115 miles per hour.
That boat would take less than an hour to go from Auke Bay to Skagway.
``There are some bizarre solutions to marine transportation,'' said Alaska DOT's Smith. The fast ferries in Southeast, he said, won't be radical in terms of their catamaran hulls or their interior design. Their speed won't come from nifty new engineering, but from two potent diesel engines.
``These aren't going to be high-tech,'' Smith said. ``They're high power.''
CONSIDERING THE OPTIONS
Studying up on fast ferries, Marc Wheeler of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council found that some of the problems seem to be less problematic in Southeast. If the marine highway system pays attention to issues raised in other places, the fast ferry shouldn't be an environmental problem.
Erosion of gently sloping beaches by the wake of a fast ferry and the potential disruption of other boat traffic, he said, can be handled by easing off the throttle.
``There's a simple solution,'' he said. ``Slow down.''
SEACC likes the idea of ferries running in Southeast a lot better than roads taking the place of the marine highway system here.
Jamie Parsons, a former Juneau mayor, wants a road. He doesn't hate fast ferries, he said, he just wants there to be a more open decision-making process involved before money gets spent. He said if the ships cost too much to operate, political problems will develop in the Legislature, which could lead to reduced Juneau access in the future rather than better access.
If it's going to be a fast ferry, he said, then make it something that can take the place of a mainliner, and make its dock closer to Skagway - at a point near Berners Bay.
``I think ultimately, this community (Juneau) needs a road,'' Parsons said. ``I think we need a bigger, faster ferry and it makes more sense at Cascade Point.''
Allen Marine, a shipbuilder in Sitka, has been building and running fast catamarans in Southeast for some time now. Bob Allen, the company's patriarch, said the trip from Juneau to Sitka is a consistent five hours on his company's 32-knot boats.
Though he'd prefer to see the Alaska Marine Highway System go with a smaller-vessel, feeder-ferry type system, he said fast ferries can be made to work well in Southeast.
The 104-foot-long ferry that used to shuttle workers from Auke Bay to the Greens Creek Mine on Admiralty Island was built and driven by Allen Marine for a decade. It was a catamaran, it was fast and it was able to handle the weather and rough water with remarkable reliability.
Allen said it was made with its route in mind.
He doubts the ``grandiose'' fast ferry being considered by DOT will be able to handle difficult currents in Peril Strait's Sergius Narrows, and doesn't think a consistent daily run will be workable.
As it is, people have to schedule their travel around the ferries, which have to schedule their travel around Sergius' strong tides. He'd like to see the system improve Sitka access anyway it can, and generally supports Southeast's floating highway.
``We totally appreciate the service we do get,'' he said. ``Any improvements would be good.''
DOT's Doll said the state plans on bringing up a catamaran next month, one near 140 feet, to see how it handles Sergius.
MORE SPEED MEANS MORE DANGER
The Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office will be interested to see what happens with the test run. Cmdr. Rob Lorigan, captain of the port for Southeast Alaska, said the office has been spending quite a bit of time with the marine highway system to try to make any fast vehicle ferry as safe as possible. Unlike regular ferries, officers on the fast ferries will be trained specifically for the ship and route they'll take.
Passenger vessels here are highly regulated as it is, Lorigan said. A fast ferry would be more highly regulated. Faster ferries, like faster cars, can be more dangerous.
``There are some increased risks. . . . It's a higher speed. They're build of lighter material,'' Lorigan said.
But around the world, and in the waters off New York City and San Francisco, fast ferries have been zipping along without running into things for quite a while, said Clark, the magazine editor.
``Overall the fast ferry has an enviable reputation for safety,'' he said. ``But they're like airplanes. When they crash, they do make an awful mess of things.''
In September, a 138-foot fast ferry ran into rocks off Norway's west coast. Some 16 people died.
The ferry was just three months old and was equipped with the latest safety and navigation systems, but it hit a shoal anyway and sank 45 minutes later. Officials in Norway said the weather may have been worse than the ferry could handle.
Whale strikes, Clark said, have been an issue with fast ferries, but those problems have been associated largely with jet-foil ferries, not catamarans. The reason, some in the industry think, has something to do with the vibrations created by the foils that attract whales, he said.
In Southeast, whales, dolphins and even people will have some extra protection from some technology recently added to the state's requirements for the ferry.
Infrared sensors coupled with a computer and a color monitor will look a mile ahead of the ferry for heat and cold, picking up mammals and ice.
``Thermal imaging,'' said DOT's Smith. ``It makes a dolphin breaking the surface look like a neon light on the screen.''
The system will likely miss floating logs, Smith said, because the temperature of the timber tends to be the same as the water. However, another recent design change thickened the bows of the catamaran to keep a tree from felling a ferry.
Another new addition to the state's specifications is a hull monitoring program to try to extend the life of the new ferries to near 25 years, he said.
Despite Smith's thinking, he said, some people seem convinced that the catamaran will be a fragile ship, timid in the face of Lynn Canal's sometimes violent weather.
``I think the boats will be a lot more rugged, practical and reliable than people think,'' Smith said. DOT estimates that during the winter, there's a 5 percent chance weather will cancel a fast ferry trip.
BAD NEWS FOR SOME PASSENGERS
No matter what, some people won't have a pleasant ride on the fast ferries if and when they start carrying Alaskans.
A lot of complicated study was put into a design characteristic common to ferry construction, which estimates the number of people who'll get seasick depending on wave activity, speed and the shape of a ship's hull.
Smith said the state is aiming for a ``motion sickness incidence factor'' of about 10 percent in the worst sea conditions, the industry standard.
Why not go for a seasick free ferry? Fast Ferry International's Clark said years of engineering experience within the industry has lead to the conclusion that the only way to keep people from turning green on a boat is to park it in a dry dock.
``No matter how stable the vessel is, some people will chuck up,'' he said. ``If you go by sea, you can't have zero in the figure.''
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