LeConte back in ferry system, ups village service

Sister vessel not able to fill in during ferry's annual overhaul

Posted: Sunday, November 01, 2009

Village residents are getting their ferry back this weekend, when the Alaska Marine Highway System's LeConte returns to service following an annual overhaul.

Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

In the meantime, Allen Marine of Sitka provided service connecting Juneau with Angoon, Hoonah, Tenakee Springs, Pelican and Sitka. The contract service was provided by two vessels, the passenger-carrying St. Aquilina and the vehicle-carrying Glacier.

Angoon residents are happy their big ferry is returning, said Maxine Thompson, a local businesswoman and member of the state's Marine Transportation Advisory Board from Angoon.

"They're looking forward to the LeConte coming back," she said.

It was unusual to have to contract with a private company to provide ferry service. State officials said the LeConte's sister ship, the Aurora, was unavailable this year because it was getting a long-term overhaul. The system's mainline ferries such as the Columbia and the stern-loading catamarans such as the Fairweather, are incompatible with some village docks.

Thompson said she was among those who had been skeptical that the Allen Marine boats would be able to provide adequate service, but was pleased at how well they did.

One factor, she said, was the small vessels weren't faced with bad weather during the two months they provided ferry service.

The ferry system, too, was pleased. Capt. John Falvey, AMHS general manager, described Allen Marine's work as "nothing short of outstanding."

Falvey said he's grateful that the company was able to provide service to the northern Southeast's village route. Those communities rely heavily on ferry service, and some don't have airfields.

Thompson said the substitute service wasn't the same as the LeConte, however. The small boat had weight restrictions on carry-on luggage, which was a problem for residents heading to Juneau to shop, she said.

"They allowed 100 pounds, which isn't very much when you start talking about a 25-pound bag of rice and at 25-pound bag of sugar, which large families would buy in Juneau," Thompson said.

"There was a lot of frustration, because this is the time of year with permanent fund dividends people would be going into town to buy washers or dryers," she said.

The St. Aquilina was also more susceptible to heavy weather, and couldn't sail if the seas were rough. This is the time of year for potlatches, and Thompson said she knew of at least one which was canceled because of the schedule uncertainty. Others were delayed until after the LeConte's return.

The Allen Marine service was well used, said Chuck vanKirk, the ferry system's operations manager. On at least one occasion, it came very close to hitting the St. Aquilina's 125-passenger capacity, vanKirk said, but never had to turn anyone away.

During the LeConte's annual overhaul, it was dry-docked for inspections that discovered no problems, vanKirk said. It also got various improvements to navigational and safety equipment, lifesaving gear and general machinery.

The LeConte overhaul cost $790,000, vanKirk said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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