Surely, the sinking of the Queen of the North in the early morning hours of March 22 has sent shivers through the collective shoulders of Alaskans. It should. While the crew and villagers from nearby Hartley Bay performed heroically, one very likely cause of the ship's rapid sinking was its age and design. Four Alaska Marine Highway System vessels are even older, three nearly as old. All share the single-hull design that is now considered obsolete.
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That these vessels' days are numbered goes without saying. One can only hope that the Columbia and her sister ships will meet their end by a scrapper's torch rather than by an abandon ship siren in the middle of the night as did the ill-fated Queen of the North. It is imperative that the State of Alaska move quickly to build replacements that will maintain a crucial transportation link for Southeast Alaska communities.
There is, however, an opportunity that arises out of the loss of the Queen of the North. Alaska and British Columbia can and should work together to provide better marine highway service between Port Hardy on the northern end of Vancouver Island, Prince Rupert and Ketchikan.
Two boats with a 21-knot cruising speed can offer daily service in the summer with alternate-day service in the winter.
This would entail ending Alaska Marine Highway System operations out of Bellingham, Wash. But is the mission of the ferry system to offer cruises or to provide transportation to and from Alaska? Such a transfer would save more than 16 hours of travel time on the ferry. At present, one ship could make eight round-trips on the Bellingham-Ketchikan route per month compared to 14 on the Port Hardy-Ketchikan route. When paired with a BC Ferries ship, the Port Hardy connection becomes daily.
The Alaska Marine Highway System is hemorrhaging red ink. Although we have assurances that safety is not at risk, some doubts remain if for no other reason than the age of the fleet's ships. The reality is that the days of the long, lazy rides on the Blue Canoes are over. The grounding of the LeConte and the fire on the Columbia should serve as warnings. The Alaska Marine Highway System needs to overhaul its route structure and replace its aging ships sooner rather than later. That is the lesson we can learn from the sinking of the Queen of the North.
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