Juneau residents by the hundreds toured the new state ferry Fairweather on Saturday. The ship is the Alaska Marine Highway's first fast vehicle and passenger ferry, and at 32 knots it's expected to halve the traveling time between Juneau and Haines, Skagway and Sitka.
"It's new and it's nice," said resident Jocelyn Yadao. "It has more technology compared with the other vessels. We're happy to see it."
The Fairweather, a 235-foot catamaran homeported in Juneau, won't begin service until late May, probably, said ferry system general manager George Capacci. The agency is still hiring the two 10-person crews and the relief crew, and they need to undergo training, including taking a dozen round trips to each port, he said.
The marine highway is negotiating terms of contracts with the three maritime unions as well, Capacci said. A berth for the Fairweather at the Auke Bay terminal is expected to be completed by early May.
Bob Doll, who managed the Marine Highway System when fast ferries were proposed in the late 1990s, said skeptics doubted that a vessel even would be built. Now it's up to the agency to demonstrate that fast ferries can work in Southeast waters, and win public acceptance, he said.
"Once one has ridden a two-hour trip to Haines and Skagway I think those apprehensions will disappear," said Doll, who now directs the lobbying group Better Ferries for Alaska.
"We were trying to address complaints about arrivals and departures at odd times of the day, undependable arrivals and departures, and the length of a trip between any two points compared with aviation," Doll said.
"This is a spectacular ship, and it's part of the evolution of the Marine Highway System," Capacci said. "It's not the total future, but it's the mix of the future."
The Fairweather is one of two similar ferries that are being built by Derecktor Shipyards in Bridgeport, Conn. The contract, which includes $4 million in administrative costs, is for nearly $68 million. The Chenega, which will sail in Prince William Sound, is due to be completed in spring of 2005.
On Saturday, residents of Juneau and other Southeast towns walked through the Fairweather in a steady stream from 1 to 3 p.m. They entered on the car deck, which holds the equivalent of 35 21-foot vehicles.
On the one passenger deck they sat in the reclining airline-style seats, some with tables between them, checked out the snack bar, peeked into a small TV lounge with sofa-like seating, wondered about the work tables with electric outlets, and took in the air in the small covered solarium at the stern.
"I think it's beautiful," said Skagway resident Kathy Hosford, who supports a road between Juneau and Skagway supplemented by ferries.
"It'll travel quickly up the (Lynn) canal," she said, but noted that the ferry system is charging about 10 percent more for fares on the Fairweather than on mainline ships.
Supporters of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, gathering next to the passenger ramp, held up a banner that read: Ferries Are Our Future. They gathered signatures in support of state funding for the ferry system "as the most reliable and efficient way to connect all the communities of Southeast Alaska," said Emily Ferry, a SEACC grassroots organizer.
"Ferries are a much better investment (than roads), for large cities and small villages," she said.
Politics aside, Josh Warner of Juneau said he loved the Fairweather.
"It looks like it's well-built, low-profile," he said. "It's more of a modern design, more accommodating for what we need today. It's the best thing for the ferry system to keep alive today, to do something like this."
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.