Alaska Marine Highway chief has devoted his life to the sea

Juneau Color

Posted: Friday, December 22, 2000

With fast ferries, proposed fare increases and a fast-approaching legislative session, Capt. George Capacci, general manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System, has a lot on his plate.

He couldn't be happier.

"I always played team sports and I always was on the team," Capacci said. "I like working together and there's a good team here at marine highways. By and large what we do is incredible, and they do a super job out there."

Former general manager and current Southeast Region Director Bob Doll recommended Capacci as his successor. Doll feels Capacci is the ideal man for the job.

"I think I could sum it up by saying his good judgment, his conscientiousness and his dedication to the marine highway system," Doll said in listing Capacci's qualifications. "He's the first general manager that's come up through the ranks of the marine highway. All the others have been inserted from outside the organization."

Capacci, 48, has been amassing maritime skills since the mid-1970s. He grew up in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and attended the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., and George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

He spent more than 20 years with the Coast Guard with assignments that took him from Antarctica to the North Slope of Alaska.

"You don't think of joining the Coast Guard and seeing the world, but we did," Capacci said.

He visited Juneau for the first time in 1977 and remembers being struck by its beauty.

"I thought it was just spectacular," he said. "The mountains, the town so close to the water."

Coast Guard assignments quickly spirited him away, but Capacci kept returning to Alaska. In 1981, he was assigned to a buoy tending ship in Ketchikan. He and his wife, Kathy, who were married in 1980, moved up with their baby daughter, Christina.

A similar 1989 assignment in Homer led to Capacci's ship being the first to reach the Exxon Valdez after it ran aground in Prince William Sound. Capacci spent the summer assisting with the cleanup.

"It was a good experience because I saw ... what caused that was human error," Capacci said. "[The captain] didn't recognize that this was a dangerous location and you have to stay on the bridge.

"The true mark of a successful sailor is understanding those critical times that the captain's experience needs to be on the bridge. It depends on that."

Capacci, Kathy and their children, Christina, Natalie, Anna and Andrew, moved to Juneau permanently in 1995 after Capacci found himself facing another Coast Guard transfer to Washington, D.C.

"Christina was in eighth grade ... I just didn't want to raise high school kids in D.C.," Capacci said. "We made the choice as a family to retire."

In 1997 Capacci took a position with the Marine Highway System as assistant port captain. He was promoted to port captain in 1999 and appointed as general manager by Gov. Tony Knowles last Jan. 31.

In his new capacity, Capacci oversees the entire Marine Highway System, working with everything from employees to engineering maintenance. Currently, he's juggling a number of major projects, including an increased focus on safety training for all marine highway workers.

"We talk about what's important, it comes down to the people," Capacci said. "Safety is everybody's responsibility. That's going to be the human element of it."

Additionally, plans for the installation of a number of new "fast ferries" are underway. The first fast ferry to be funded by the state will be a Sitka-based vessel that will make daily round trips to Juneau or Petersburg as of 2003. Catamarans, traveling up to 37 knots, would be dayboats operating within zones in Southeast as a supplement to mainline service.

"It's more an airplane model, if you will, the transportation system we're growing to," Capacci said. "This is what people tell us -- they want to get from Ketchikan to Juneau in eight hours."

The idea has spurred a good amount of public debate, which Capacci said he enjoys.

"It doesn't bother me at all," he said. "As a student of public administration, I know you need these different voices."

Under the new plan, he added, almost all the existing ferries will remain part of the system; a few may be retired for economic reasons.

Economics also have spurred the need for a proposed fare increase. The ferry system is facing a deficit in its saving account, which is used to cover costs not paid for by revenue or legislative funds, in 2002.

"I'd like never to have to raise fares," Capacci said. "If it was a perfect world, it would be free, but we are forced to try to cover some of our costs."

Many of the changes stem from Capacci's desire to raise awareness among Alaskans about the viability of the ferry system as a means of transportation.

"We know what the Marine Highway System provides," he said. "We need to tell some of our customers that. People are looking for adventures, and the Alaskan adventure is there. What attracted me in the '70s is still here."

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