The fast ferry Fairweather turns south from Juneau to Petersburg on Thursday, helping form a faster water link to Ketchikan.
Alaska Marine Highway System officials hope to double the effectiveness of the state's two fast ferries this winter with a schedule that will take people from Juneau to Ketchikan on the same day.
"Essentially, it's a 10-hour trip," said Vern Craig, marketing manager for the marine highway.
The fast ferries run about twice the speed of mainline ships, and mainline routes between Juneau and Ketchikan stop more than once.
Previously, the Fairweather was dedicated to linking Juneau to Haines, Skagway and Sitka. Those runs will decline during the winter in favor of the Petersburg route.
For three days a week beginning Thursday, the Fairweather will run from Juneau and the Chenega will run from Ketchikan to meet in Petersburg. The ferries will exchange passengers and vehicles before the vessels head back to their home ports.
People driving onto the Fairweather from Juneau for an 8 a.m. departure can drive off the Chenega in Ketchikan at about 6:15 p.m., according to the schedule. Craig said that has never been possible before.
On Nov. 18, the service, dubbed the "Southeast Express," is scheduled to move from Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays to Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Juneau-Petersburg, 8 a.m.-11:55 a.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays (Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays starting Nov. 18).
Petersburg-Juneau, 2 p.m.-6 p.m.
Ketchikan-Wrangell-Petersburg, 7:15 a.m.-1 p.m., Thursdays and Saturdays (Saturdays and Sundays starting Nov. 18).
Ketchikan-Petersburg, 8:15 a.m.-1 p.m. Fridays.
Petersburg-Ketchikan, 1:30 p.m.-6:15 p.m.* Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays (Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays starting Nov. 18).
* Some sailings stop in Wrangell, adding an hour to the trip.
To book day trips on the fast-ferry between Juneau and Ketchikan, call the toll-free reservation number (800) 642-0066 and ask for the Juneau-Ketchikan route. The marine highway's Web site shows them as different routes.
Craig said the fast ferries don't make single runs between Juneau and Ketchikan - a distance of more than 200 miles - because the "day boats" have crews that remain home at the end of their shifts.
"We believe this will give much-needed scheduling options to a number of organizations, businesses, schools and Southeast residents," said Robin Taylor, state director of the marine highway.
Rick Erdrich, activities director at Ketchikan High School, said he doesn't expect express service to Juneau to increase ferry ridership for his school's activities. If students have an away game after school on a Friday, he would want to get them into the host community by noon. "We need to leave in the early morning to get to Juneau by noon."
"I want to keep kids in school as much as possible," he said. Often that means flying to other communities, although flying is more expensive.
Haines High School principal Charlie Jones said his chief problem with the new schedule is the reduction of the Fairweather's service in Lynn Canal between Haines, Skagway and Juneau.
The Fairweather will continue to serve Haines and Skagway on Mondays and Tuesdays, after having called four days a week during the summer, marine highway spokesman John Manly said. There is less demand for the Lynn Canal service during the summer, he said.
The Fairweather will serve Sitka on Wednesdays.
Changes in ferry service "have a very real effect on our community," Jones said. Many people take the ferry from Juneau for medical trips, he added. "Medical's more important than shopping."
In Haines, it isn't a matter of choosing between flying and the ferry, Jones said. The community can't afford to fly. That means students miss more class time navigating ferry schedules.
Last week, for a debate competition in Juneau, the ferry schedule required students to catch the ferry late Tuesday to compete Friday and Saturday before leaving Juneau on Tuesday morning. They missed four days of school.
Because students are limited in how much school they can miss, they may have to decide between activities, Jones added.
"I can sympathize with that as a parent of children who go on school events," Manly said. But the marine highway has a list of activities "we go out of our way to accommodate," he added. That includes events in Haines such as the Southeast Alaska State Fair and the upcoming Alaska Bald Eagle Festival.
In addition to trying out the fast-ferry service to see how popular it might be, ferry officials will get an idea of how well the faster boats hold up in winter runs where the seas are rougher, he said. The state will use the information when deciding whether to expand the fleet.
Tony Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.
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