Bringing back the Alaskan

A venerable work boat gets a second chance

Posted: Monday, October 10, 2005

With 40 gallons an hour pumping through its twin GMC diesel engines, Ron Maas' 54-foot boat, the Alaskan, was clocked at a sizzling 22.65 miles an hour during its trial run in June 1968 on New Orleans' Lake Pontchartrain.

The boat, with its quarter-inch steel hull that seated 24 and slept eight, seemed to be impervious to the elements during its two-decade heyday (1968-1988) in Juneau. Maas used it for his charter business and ran it as a pilot boat out to Point Retreat.

"We had 80, 90 knots of wind out there and I'd be scared to death, but this boat was so well-built, I never had any trouble," Maas said.

Nowadays, the Alaskan looks much older than its 37 years.

Maas sold it in 1988 to Southeast Stevedoring, which planned to repower it and use it as a pilot boat in Kake. Instead, the vessel was forgotten. The zincs weren't replaced, the strong steel deteriorated, the boat sat derelict on a beach for almost 15 years. Vagrants stripped the wiring, stole the radar and the spare parts. The beautiful wood doors, custom-made, were torn from their hinges and left floating in two feet of stagnant water.

"The poor girl just sat there rotting to hell and nobody paid any attention to it," Maas said. "It sat there for 15 years and filled up with water just like a bathtub. I really loved the boat, and it's been really good to me, and I couldn't see it be chopped up for steel, for scrap."

Maas, 78, bought the Alaskan back for $35,000 earlier this summer and hopes to spend the next year, and about $200,000, restoring it. He plans to haul it across Gastineau Channel, from Harris Harbor to Trucano's Landing, sometime today. He has no immediate plans for it, post-renovation.

"It's a sad story, but I'm going to bring it back," Maas said. "I just want to do it. I need a project to keep my mind busy."

"I don't have the energy I used to have," he said. "I'll have to hire a lot of it, whereas I always did everything myself before. "There'll be an awful lot of grinding and buffing, for paint, and I'll do most of that myself. I like to work with my hands. That's one reason why I got the boat back."

Maas has been in Alaska for more than four decades. He's an original founding member of the Juneau Symphony, and he and his wife, Kathy, donated $50,000 to the group last fall. Lately, he's kept active as the leader and main trumpet player for the Thunder Mountain Big Band.

In the 1960s, Maas built a successful real estate company in Juneau. He quickly decided to get into the charter business but couldn't find the type of boat he wanted. He placed an advertisement in "Boats and Harbors" magazine and was soon contacted by the Equitable Equipment Company in New Orleans. They had a quarter-inch-steel crewboat hull - designed for transporting workers to offshore drilling platforms - sitting in their boatyard.

"You really can't find this kind of hull anywhere else," Maas said. "It's really sharp in the bow, and then it flattens out in the stern. It's built for speed and endurance in the gulf."

In the first half of 1968, Maas spent five months and about $190,000 building the boat in New Orleans' Industrial Canal, near Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.

"All the shipyard workers think we live in a land of polar bears and icebergs," Maas wrote in a dispatch for page 4 of the Friday, June 14, 1968, Juneau Alaska Empire. "They can't understand why I want a boat in Alaska when we are continually ice-bound and in sub-zero weather."

Mass launched the boat on June 10, 1968 and, after sea trials, planned to zoom across the Gulf of Mexico to Cozumel, dash down the coastline of Central America to the Panama Canal, cross to the Pacific Ocean and motor all the way up to Juneau.

But the twin GMC diesels arrived six weeks late. The Panama plan fell right in the middle of hurricane season, and Maas couldn't find an insurance company willing to take the risk.

Instead, he piloted the Alaskan to Galveston, Texas, where the boat was hauled out, placed on a six-axle, 70-foot truck and driven on country roads to the California border. There, the trip was delayed for two weeks, while a patrolman asked Maas to make modifications to one of the trailer's axles.

Eventually, the 3,000-mile trip ended at the Todd Shipyards in Los Angeles. The Alaskan was re-launched, and Maas motored to Juneau in nine days.

In town, Maas began taking hunters throughout Southeast. On a typical Saturday, he'd leave for the Glass Peninsula at 5 in the morning, drop a group of them off on the beach with a Boston Whaler skiff and spend the rest of the day hunting seal. He did that for 20 years, and ran the Alaskan as a pilot boat for Southeast Stevedoring at the same time.

Large boats aiming to enter Juneau were required to have a pilot with local knowledge of the waters. Maas would ferry the pilots out to Point Retreat, where they'd meet the visiting ships. He made at least a thousand trips.

"The reason I'm so attached to the old bugger is that when I first came here, the winters were unbelievable," Maas said. "It got so bad that we really had to put our foot down and say we wouldn't go out unless it was 55 knots or less. But at 55 knots, we'd have to go.

"We lost steering one night coming back, and that was a thrill," he said. "The wind blew the mast off. Quarter-inch steel and it broke the bolts right off while we were at anchorage. That was just another day."

Another time, Maas and The Alaskan spent two months in Glacier Bay as the support vessel for the crew filming "Bear Island," a 1979 Donald Sutherland and Vanessa Redgrave thriller based on an Alistar MacLean novel.

"I got caught in a williwaw, and we had winds up to 100 knots and it blew the skiff right off the back," Maas said. "It was tied down with cables and a snap ring, and it bent the snap ring wide open. I had the skiff tied to the boat and fortunately the rope held. Once it hit the water, it was okay."

Maas opened the Taku Glacier Lodge in 1979 and was getting into the aviation business by the late 1980s. He found himself with no time to take care of a 54-foot steel boat, so he sold it to Southeast Stevedoring, based in Ketchikan, for $50,000.

The company had other projects, according to Bob Berto, and didn't get around to working on the Alaskan. Eventually, they put it on the beach. Maas passed through Ketchikan every two or three years and always made a point to visit his old boat.

"She's a good girl and it's really quite a unique vessel," Maas said. "I'll do the best that I can."

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