Columbia out for the summer

Matanuska to pick up most passengers

Posted: Wednesday, June 14, 2000

The bad news: the ferry Columbia will be out of service the rest of the summer.

The good news: the ferry Matanuska can accommodate most of the passenger demand north from Bellingham.

The Alaska Marine Highway System announced Tuesday afternoon that it has removed the damaged Columbia from its schedule for the time being. An electrical switchboard fire on June 6 crippled the vessel, and it had to be towed from Chatham Strait where the fire broke out. Disconnected by the fire from its engines, the ship was towed to moorage at the Auke Bay Ferry terminal, arriving early June 7.

Anchor away: Ferry loses one

The ferry Matanuska lost one of its two anchors and is seeking a replacement. The loss of the anchor won't prevent the Matanuska from running.

The ship lost one of its two anchors about 10 days ago in Peril Strait, said AMHS operations manager Norm Edwards. The anchor went to the bottom because of ``a failure in the swivel pin, which had come undone'' in Peril Strait.

``We are now in the process of procuring another anchor, which we should have within two weeks,'' Edwards added.

One anchor could well be sufficient for a vessel of that size, 408 feet, said Lt. Jim Bartlett of the Coast Guard's Office of Marine Safety in Juneau.

``You don't want to lose one, of course,'' Bartlett said, ``because it costs money. But on a vessel that small the loss of one generally doesn't affect stability or ride.''

For vessels of this type, the Coast Guard defers to the Classification Society and federal regulations regarding anchors. Equipment is determined by ``the waters in which it operates,'' Bartlett said. The Matanuska, which is not an ocean-going vessel, is classified as operating in lakes, bays and sounds all the way from Skagway to Bellingham, Wash.

The anchors are ranged one on each side of the bow, Edwards said. They weigh about 5,600 pounds each. They cost $6,000 or $7,000, or about a dollar a pound, and are usually made to order.

The Matanuska is currently filling in for the Columbia, which has been out of commission since a fire in its control room on June 6. Edwards said the Matanuska will continue in this role as long as the Columbia is out of service.

One of the largest and oldest ferries in the Alaska Marine Highway System, the Matanuska was launched in 1963.

Although the fire was confined to a relatively small area of the control room, that area is the vessel's electrical heart. Electrical ``arteries'' -- wiring emerging from that heart -- cannot simply be spliced; they must be extracted and replaced, officials said. This is a time-consuming operation which will require weeks of work.

First AMHS must develop engineering plans. Next, those plans must obtain Coast Guard approval. Finally, a contractor must be hired who can bring the plans to completion.

``We would like to see the project completed before Labor Day, but cannot guarantee it,'' said AMHS general manager George Capacci. The Columbia, like most ferries in the system, operates year-round.

Capacci expects the Columbia to leave Auke Bay this afternoon to begin its slow tow to Ketchikan for repairs.

``Our engineers' estimate of damage is more than half a million and less than $2 million. It's hard to pin down (an exact repair bill) at this point,'' Capacci said.

The ferry Matanuska will be sailing on the Bellingham, Wash.-Skagway route as long as the Columbia is out of service. As a result, trips to and from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, the Matanuska's normal route June through September, have been reduced during the height of the travel season.

Some of that service will be replaced by having the ferry Aurora provide additional trips between Prince Rupert and Ketchikan on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for the rest of the summer, according to the state Department of Transportation.

The 418-foot Columbia is the Marine Highway's largest ship, and biggest revenue maker, with a capacity of 625 people and 134 vehicles.

Capacci expects to be able to accommodate all walk-on demand for trips north by ferry from Bellingham, but not all vehicle demand.

Recreational vehicles and other vehicles booked between Bellingham and Skagway that cannot be accommodated aboard the smaller Matanuska are being encouraged to drive or take British Columbia ferries to Prince Rupert.

Passengers squeezed aboard the Matanuska will need to form fast friendships, Capacci said.

``Our booking limit for the Matanuska is officially 500 people and 88 vehicles,'' Capacci explained. ``For this coming weekend, we have reservations for 602 people and 132 cars.''

``We set a limit for comfort, but if we're going to have more passengers, I just tell the captain to get ready,'' he said. The Coast Guard passenger limit for the Matanuska is 745.

``People are going to have to be chummy, and become pen pals and meet interesting people from the far corners of the earth,'' Capacci said. But he believes being a bit crowded is an alternative most tourists can live with -- as opposed to canceling their travel plans altogether.

In an effort to keep up with a flood of phone calls, the ferry system has hired more operators to work longer hours and on Saturdays to assist tourists and residents who need to re-book their trips. In addition, the AMHS web site is being updated regularly with new information. To access that page, go to and click on Hotlinks.

Some calls were still being met this morning with ``all circuits are busy.'' But Capacci hopes employees will catch up with demand soon.

Juneau residents aiming for the Kluane-Chilkat International Bike Relay this coming weekend are having no problems getting on the Malaspina, which runs between Juneau, Haines and Skagway, said Dave Ringle of the Juneau Freewheelers Bicycle Association. About 200 or 300 residents are heading for Skagway for the race.

The Juneau central reservations office at 1591 Glacier Ave. will be open for customer service weekdays from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m., and on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., until further notice. A recorded schedule is available from that office by calling 465-3940. The reservations number there is 465-3941.

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