BRIDGEPORT, Conn. - It took her two tries, but Alaska first lady Nancy Murkowski got the job done Saturday as she christened a high-speed ferry that will usher in a new era of marine travel for Southeast.
Murkowski's second swipe with the champagne bottle against the hull of the Fairweather was a smashing success. She and her husband, Gov. Frank Murkowski, were among the dignitaries and nearly 300 spectators at Derecktor Shipyards in Bridgeport, Conn., where the vessel was built.
Powered by four diesel engines and four water jets, the 235-foot vessel is the first high-speed ferry to be used on the Alaska Marine Highway. The Fairweather will be home-ported in Juneau and is scheduled to begin operations in May 2004. It will service Juneau, Sitka, Haines and Skagway.
It can attain speeds of 32 knots, or 40 mph, and will drastically cut down commuter time from the traditional ferries that operate along the Marine Highway. It will make the 128 nautical-mile run between Juneau and Sitka in four to five hours.
"These ships take anything that move on the highways - vans, campers, trucks fire engines, and rapidly tie the communities of southeastern Alaska together," Gov. Murkowski said.
Nancy Murkowski praised the design of the vessel as economically and environmentally prudent. It will take less than $15,000 a day for the upkeep of the nearly $40 million ship, and there is no discharge of pollutants from the ship to the environment, she said.
The main deck will have interior seating for more than 250 passengers. There also will be outside seating in the ferry's solarium. The cargo deck will hold 35 vehicles, transportation officials said.
It is one of two high-speed ferries being built by Derecktor Shipyards for the state of Alaska in a deal worth about $70 million, according to Alaska transportation officials. The catamarans, or twin-hulled boats, are made of aluminum and produce little wake while traveling at rapid speeds.
"We're really proud of the workmanship as evident here in the Bridgeport yard and the fact that we could reach down from Alaska to Connecticut," Gov. Murkowski said.
Emily Ferry, grassroots organizer for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, has helped push for an improved ferry system. Ferry proponents believe that the building of roads, a major thrust of the Murkowski administration, would be extremely costly, she said.
"The ferries have been the basis for transportation and the economy in the area," Ferry said. "The better people can get around, the better they can interact."
Murkowski did use the christening as a forum to take a shot at Connecticut U.S. Sens. Christopher Dodd and Joseph Lieberman.
Connecticut's senators have opposed the Alaska government's wishes to open up part of the Arctic for oil exploration.
Lawmakers are concerned that drilling for oil will create intense environmental damage, a fear that Murkowski believes is unwarranted.
"Eighty-three percent of my state's revenue comes from oil," Murkowski said. "It is important that we have availability for resource development. Charity begins at home and I think it fits in this story."
The name Fairweather was chosen from a statewide essay contest of 700 elementary students in Alaska.
The shipyard started building the second ferry, the Chenega, in January. The Chenega is scheduled to go into service in 2005, serving three Alaska ports on Prince William sound.
Alaska has an option to buy two more ferries from the company.