Fast ferries proving to be unreliable

Alaska Marine Highway System looks at new class of vessels for the future

Posted: Friday, August 14, 2009

The Marine Transportation Advisory Board will seek millions in additional dollars for its vessel replacement fund, while Alaska Marine Highway System officials are increasingly being confronted with problems of broken down boats disrupting schedules.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

The fleet is predominately older vessels, some more than 40 years old facing increasing maintenance costs, but it is often its newest ships that are crippled with mechanical flaws, ferry managers said.

The Fast Vehicle Ferry Fairweather has been plagued by engine breakdowns recently, and some ferry officials are expressing doubts about whether the technologically advanced but delicate fast ferries can be used in the future.

"They're like trying to keep a Ferrari running as your family car," said Capt. John Falvey, general manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Falvey spoke to the Marine Transportation Advisory Board at its meeting Thursday in Juneau, and expressed doubts about the continued usefulness of the Fairweather, one of the fleet's two catamaran-style fast ferries.

"Its future is somewhat cloudy," Falvey said.

The Fairweather often operates out of Juneau in Lynn Canal and to Sitka, while its sister, the FVF Chenega, has been operating in Prince William Sound. They were built in 2004 and are the newest in the AMHS fleet.

The two fast ferries can reach 40 miles per hour, and significantly cut travel times, but at a high cost to operate.

They've also not been dependable, with non-standard engines proving unreliable, and needing custom-made replacement parts shipped from overseas. The Fairweather has been out of service repeatedly.

"That vessel has operating challenges," Falvey said.

While the Fairweather has had most of the problems so far, the Chenega is of the same design and has the same engines, Falvey said.

"That boat has challenges, too, we just don't know the extent of that yet," he said.

The Fairweather will be going in this winter for an extensive overhaul, and Falvey said he wasn't sure what they were going to find, but would try to have it back in service by its scheduled date of May 1.

MTAB member Patrick Owen of Juneau, a retired ferry crew member, called the fast ferries a "political mistake." The two fast ferries consume fuel at a high rate, and were built at a time when fuel prices were significantly lower.

Most of the state's other ferries are much older, and while Falvey said they've been well maintained over the years, they are extremely old by vessel standards.

"Most ships that are 40-plus years old aren't even around any more," Falvey said.

The AMHS plans to design and build a new mid-sized ferry it is calling the "Alaska-class ferry," which it hopes will become the long-term workhorse of the fleet, efficiently handling many of the shorter runs.

"This is a very conventional ship that we're building, nothing fancy," he said.

The Alaska-class ferries will be more fuel efficient and take fewer crew to operate, reducing costs, ferry officials said.

The ferry system is currently in the design phase of the construction program, and expects the designs to be done and ready to go out for bid by the end of March.

The MTAB on Thursday decided to send a letter to Gov. Sean Parnell seeking additional money for the ferry system's vessel replacement fund. The fund currently holds $60 million, and board members said they'd like to see another $60 million to fund the possible $120 million construction cost.

Falvey and Deputy Commissioner Jim Beedle said they won't know for sure what the new ferry will cost until the design is compete and it is bid out.

MTAB chair Mike Korsmo of Skagway said the state needed to get the new vessel ready to fund and build, as the construction was expected to take 4 to 6 years.

"We've got to get a move on it," he said.

Korsmo took over as chair at the meeting, replacing Juneau's Cathie Roemmich, who led the board since it was re-created by then-Gov. Sarah Palin early in her term.

Roemmich then successfully urged the Legislature to create the board in statute, instead of by executive order, so it would live on past Palin.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at

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