Sharon Bond’s son, 14-year-old Trevor, has a close connection to the vessels of the Alaska Marine Highway System. Especially the M/V Tustumena, the ship that links the family’s hone in Seldovia to the rest of the world.
“Sometimes children with autism need a focus on something. His is on the ferry system,” said Bond, whose son is on hand every time the ship ties up at the dock.
The crew has taken Trevor, who has a collection of Tustumena memorabilia, under its wing, given him tours of the ship and “if he’s not there, they ask where he is,” said Bond.
The Tustumena also is the Bond family’s preferred method of transportation to and from Seldovia.
“It’s the cheapest route and we can take our own vehicle for less than if we flew as a family,” said Bond of travel to Homer. “I always try to arrange our medical appointments, shopping, whatever around the ferry system.”
That all changed in November when the 296-foot vessel entered into a federal capital improvement project at the Seward Ship’s Drydock. It was scheduled to return to service in April, with the M/V Kennecott filling in during its absence. Then the return was rescheduled for July 23, in time for the Tustumena to make a scheduled sailing to Dutch Harbor. Last week, the state announced the ship would not return to service until Aug. 20.
“Recent inspections revealed that certain repairs to the vessel made at Seward Ship’s Drydock do not meet regulatory standards,” said a press release issued by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. “In order for the ferry to meet the required safety standards for passenger service, the shipyard will require additional time beyond the project extension to correct the repairs.”
Jeremy Woodrow, DOT&PF spokesperson, said “discovery work” is expected in any improvement project.
“It was discovered when looking into deeper areas of the ship, some of the tanks well below the water line, steel that needed to be replaced,” said Woodrow. “A normal improvement project might see 5, 6, 7 percent growth on a project. This one is upwards of 18 percent.”
In spite of the additional work, Woodrow said the project is on budget.
“The state estimated the cost at $6.2 million and that’s what’s budgeted, most of it federal dollars. The shipyard won the bid for just right around $5 million,” he said. “The extra work, until July 1, had only expended about $5.1 million and we expect it to come up to about what we’ve programmed.”
While repairs on the ship continue, crew members are at the shipyard helping with the work. Shore-side employees also have been kept working.
“To date, no one has been laid off,” said Woodrow.
The Alaska Marine Highway System, whose mission is to “keep Alaska moving,” operates 11 ferries serving 35 communities.
Built in 1964, the Tustumena, known affectionately as the “Tusty,” connects Homer, Seldovia and the Kodiak Island communities of Kodiak and Port Lions. From April to October, is extends its reach to Chignik, Sand Point, King Cove, Cold Bay, False Pass, Akutan and Dutch Harbor.
When regular overhauls of AMHS ships are scheduled, the state gives impacted communities advance warning.
“And they can plan and comment well in advance whether it does or doesn’t work for the community,” said Woodrow.
The Tustumena’s lengthy absence wasn’t in the plan, however, and the delay is now bumping up against the Kennecott’s schedule.
“In the spring we arranged to take the Kennecott off its cross-gulf run because it was a shoulder season and the ship was not full yet and it was still early in the season and other ships weren’t full either so we could maneuver passengers around,” said Woodrow.
Now that summer traffic has increased, there is less flexibility. As a result, the Kennecott is only able to make a Kodiak-Seldovia-Homer run every two weeks.
Seldovia City Manager Tim Dillon said during the winter the state made temporary arrangements for a barge to carry freight between Seldovia and Homer. With news of the extended delay, Dillon is working with the state to provide a similar arrangement, but it isn’t something done overnight.
“Once you convince Alaska Marine Highways what you need, then they have to put it out for a bid and offer a contract, so you’re talking about 10 days before you get any kind of service,” said Dillon.
“They pick up the tab, but folks still pay what they normally pay for the Tustumena or Kennecott.”
While a barge helps with freight, it isn’t meant for passengers.
“You can’t go putting a lot of individuals on there, so the hardship is having to fly over and then pick up your vehicle on the other side,” said Dillon.
Appreciating the efforts of Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, and Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, to ensure the state “understands it’s been a hardship on our community,” Dillon said he has “faith in the system. I think we’ll get three or so barges between now and Aug. 20 on top of the Kennecott every other week.”
“It’s impacting us big time,” said Sandy Geagle of Kar-A-Van Transfer.
“Some ferries, we have four, five vans and flatbeds on them for construction projects, restaurants, the grocery store.”
Tim P. Dillon, who owns the construction company Dillon and Dillon and is not related to the city manager, also is feeling the crunch.
“We’re scrambling, trying to get individuals with landing crafts to move materials when we can. It’s a real struggle,” he said.
On this side of Kachemak Bay, Jay-Brant General Contractors is considering what the Tustumena’s absence may mean when construction begins on a new building for the city of Seldovia.
“(Tim P.) Dillon is actually going to be doing the work for us and is coordinating the logistics,” said Chuck Jay.
“If, in fact, we have to wait until mid or late August, then it will have an impact on us. ... At this point we’re hoping it doesn’t get delayed again.”
Phil Morris of Alaska Ferry Adventures said the delays have doubled the work of his nine-person staff.
“When a guy calls up and wants to do something, you create the tour. Then the boat cancels, so you have to refund the money and undo everything you did so it’s like double work and you don’t make a commission,” said Morris. “It’s just a hassle to have to do everything twice.”
As a whole, this has been a good season for Morris and his business.
“There’s lots of tourism coming to Alaska and our revenues are significantly higher than last year,” he said.
“Business wise, we’re great. I appreciate the Alaska Marine Highway System. I just wish the damn boat would get back in the water.”
Ian McGaughey, president of the Seldovia Chamber of Commerce, said the Tustumena’s absence and the Kennecott’s once-every-two-weeks service is far from ideal. However, making sure the Tustumena is in top shape when it returns is the priority.
“I know the folks with the Marine Highway System are aware of the burden placed on our businesses and residents,” said McGaughey. “I think they’re doing all they can, but if the question is between a boat tomorrow or a safe boat in a week, we’ll take the safe boat.”
For Sharon Bond and her family — husband Steven; son Skyler, 11; and son Trevor — the return of the Tustumena will mean the long wait is over.
“In reality I would like to know everything is fixed and it’s safe,” said Bond.
“And I desperately want it back. I really, really miss it. Our family probably misses it more than anybody else.”
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.