The state ferry Taku slows down as it passes Kasaan Bay on the way from Hollis to Wrangell. As the passengers on board relax, the 41 people who work on the ship are well into an average day on the job.
The ferry's passengers and cargo provide a glimpse of what is going on in Southeast Alaska on a particular week.
On this trip, the car deck is filled with military vehicles heading north after Northern Edge exercises in Ketchikan. A church group heading back to Ketchikan after a spring break ski trip in Smithers, British Columbia, was on board earlier. Basketball teams heading to a game, fishermen on the way to work and families traveling to meet relatives use the ferry.
A few hours earlier, alarm bells sounded as the ship left Ketchikan. Passengers were told the noise was just a drill as crew members donned firefighting suits and pulled out hoses. A simulated fire in the ship's laundry room was the source of attention. Chief Mate Tom Moore, who works with the crew and passengers, also oversees safety exercises such as the Taku's weekly fire and boat drill.
"They did real well," he said. "We had two fire teams down there and the fire was out in 10 minutes, which is real critical."
Moore assists Capt. Greg Styrk, who takes the helm as the ship goes in and out of ports and during tricky parts of a voyage - going through Wrangell Narrows, or Peril Strait and Sergius Narrows near Sitka, for example. Styrk, who lives in Seattle, has been a captain with the Alaska Marine Highway System for about three years. He offers vacation relief to Capts. John Wood and Tom Reed, who are permanently assigned to the ship.
The ship's captain has the ultimate authority on board, according to Capt. Bob Doll, Southeast region director for the Alaska Department of Transportation. A person who wants to become a captain makes a progression from third mate to second to chief. Each step requires success on U.S. Coast Guard exams, pilotage endorsements and a great deal of on-the-job training, Doll said.
The state ferry system has about 70 licensed deck officers, AMHS General Manager George Capacci said.
The chief mate also oversees the deck department, watching as crew members direct cars and trucks on and off the ferry. The vehicle storage area has 440-volt outlets so containers loaded with fish stay cold in the summer, Wood said.
In the pilothouse, officers use compass readings, computerized radar screens, charts and other tools to guide the ship through Alaska's Inside Passage.
Third Mate Tyler Jenner of Juneau has been working with the Marine Highway System for 16 years, spending 11 years in the deck department and five years with the steward's department before becoming a mate. On board, he works six hours on, then has six hours off. It takes a little while to adjust to changing sleep patterns during a month, he said.
"Each ship is unique. The different makeup of the people make it different," he said.
The 352-foot Taku was launched in 1962 and delivered to the state in 1963, according to the Alaska Marine Highway System. Once underway, the ferry travels at about 16 knots.
The Taku's engine room is below the car deck. There are always two workers on duty in the main engine room to monitor the engines, propulsion systems, generators, boilers, air compressors, the hydraulic system, steering gear and bilges, said First Engineer John Larson of Ketchikan. He works a 12-hour shift from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The Taku has two German-built, 4,000-horsepower diesel engines and the engineering department has eight people to make sure the ship's machinery is sound. Much of the work is preventative maintenance, Larson said.
"You're always working on something," he said.
The department works off a series of checklists that cover oil changes, chemical checks on tanks, reduction gear inspections, cleanings and other tasks, said Chief Engineer Jim Jurgeleit of Haines.
Up on the boat deck, Chief Steward Wallace Blackwell of Juneau is checking in with passengers and talking with crew members. Blackwell started working on the ferry as a dishwasher when he was in high school in 1973. As chief steward, he oversees cleaning, the staterooms, the bar and dining room. Mid-spring, Blackwell said crew members cater to basketball teams and people traveling to other events in Southeast Alaska.
"We've had some wonderful kids. The chaperones have been just wonderful," he said. "To me, this is one of the best times of the year. ...It's just as beautiful now as it is in the summer."
Blackwell has a 5-year-old daughter and said it can be hard to be away from home, although his schedule also allows him to spend every other week with his family. Another drawback is finding out about major news events days after they happen, he said.
"There are ups and downs to every job," he said.
The Taku's crew members work one- or two-week schedules. Everyone on board works a 12-hour day one way or another. Some positions call for six hours on, six hours off. Other positions require crew members to be on the job when a ferry pulls into port at 2 a.m., said Capt. John Wood.
Purser Bob Provost handles passenger accommodations, ticketing, crew correspondence and medical emergencies, if they arise. When the Taku arrives in port, he helps passengers inside while the ship's assistant purser works with people outside. State ferry mainliners with more passengers - such as the Columbia - have three pursers and the purser's counter is open around the clock, Provost said.
Meanwhile, the cooks in the galley are preparing dinner for the Taku's passengers while serving meals to the ship's crew. Chief Cook Bernadeth Suson of Juneau, who has worked on the Taku since 1984, puts together menus for the week and works with the galley staff.
Each chief cook has his or her own menus, although such standards as fish and chips and hamburgers are the same system-wide.
Because the ship picks up different people in every port, Suson said there isn't any one favorite food on the ferry. She does get requests from crew members for such Filipino specialties as adobo (a meat dish) and pansit (noodles), however.
Breakfast cook Sandy Stuart of Ketchikan, who has worked on the ferry since 1991, said passenger favorites in the morning include a baked wake-up casserole and orange pancakes with orange butter.
An average over the last six years shows that the Taku takes on $8,000 worth of food a week for passengers and crew, according to Capt. Norm Edwards, AMHS operations manager. The Taku burns about $30,000 of fuel a week, he said.
Winter employment on the ferry system ranges from 750 to 800 people increasing to 800 to 900 people during the busy summer months, Doll said.
Joanna Markell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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