Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 5:46 PM on Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Harbor hums with economic activity — Even in winter

By McKibben Jackinsky and Michael Armstrong
Staff Writers

(Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of stories about the importance of Homer's harbor and the marine trades to the economy of Homer.)


Photo by Michael Armstrong

Al Ray Carroll, captain of the F/V Amber Dawn, holds an aluminum baseball bat used to beat ice off the boat on pot cod fishing trips in Cook Inlet.

From downtown Homer, Monday's snowfall made it nearly impossible to see across the street. Completely erased was any view of the Spit, much less the harbor.

Even unseen, however, the harbor was buzzing. Some of the hum came from generators and engines being run to ward off freezing temperatures. Some of it came from activity that, despite the time of year and weather, feeds Homer's economy.

"Overall estimated economic activity associated with the harbor is $60.98 million annually," said Matt Clarke, deputy harbormaster, referring to a 2008 study done by Northern Economics for the city's east harbor boat expansion project.

Mike Fisher of Northern Economics said the study looked at local spending associated with such activities as "commercial fishing, charter fishing, sightseeing trips, recreation and so forth," and includes 1,800 part-time and full-time jobs. Fisher outlined the ripple effect involved with the following example.

"You pay a charter operator, he pays his crew, he buys stuff in the community," Fisher said. "These activities bring in people from outside the community that are spending money."

Fisher's example also illustrates the web created by harbor activities as they connect to other businesses, communities and individuals.


People often think of sport and commercial halibut fishing as summer and early spring activities, but sport fishing for winter kings and commercial fishing for pot cod goes on even in the darkest months.

Last Friday, rough weather on lower Cook Inlet kept Capt. Al Ray Carroll in the harbor, but he still ran his props to keep ice from building up behind the 58-foot F/V Amber Dawn. Nephew Weston Carroll owns the boat and keeps it running in the winter and fishes it in the summer. The crew's day begins at 4 a.m. and ends about 6 p.m. The Amber Dawn fishes from English Bay to Anchor Point "far enough out to get all that crud on the inlet," Carroll said.

"They're the tough ones," Carroll said of his pot-picking crew. "They're the ones standing there getting spray off the deck at 5 degrees."

Sea spray adds to the winter's work. Ice coating the Amber Dawn's anchor makes it look "like some Viking sculpture," Carroll said. A battered aluminum baseball bat that looked like it had taken a double-header of concrete fastballs helps keep the ice to a minimum.


Winter generally finds the 176-foot, 300-ton Helenka B and its three-person crew supporting oil production operations in Cook Inlet. However, heavy icing in that part of the inlet is keeping the former sub-chaser closer to home. Owner Bruce Flanigan has a run to Seldovia planned this week to deliver a load of propane since supplies in that community have run low.

"I haul freight for anybody and everybody, a lot of work for the federal government, the Denali Commission, Alaska Energy, all the villages all the way down the chain and into Bristol Bay. We've been all the way to Attu for the Coast Guard and all the way up to Little Diomede," said Flanigan.


Across the float from the Helenka B, crews on the USCGC Roanoke Island were busy Monday shoveling snow and chipping ice off the cutter's deck and railings. The ship has a crew of 18 — 15 are enlisted and three are officers. It serves as a platform for search and rescue activities and enforcement involving fisheries and boating safety. This time of year allows for preventive maintenance of equipment and such activities as checking survival suits for leaks, something done in the Bay Club's pool. Shortly before Christmas, the Roanoke Island's crew held a coat and blanket drive and delivered more than 1,500 pieces of clothing to residents of Nanwalek and Port Graham.

"The standard Coast Guard workday is 7 a.m.-4 p.m. when we're in port," said Ensign Steven Becker, originally from Austin, Texas, and assigned to the ship last spring. "When a unit goes underway, we're working 24-7."


Since the 1960s, the Alaska Marine Highway System's M/V Tustumena has made calls in Homer to pick up and deliver passengers and freight. It's official hailing port is Kodiak, but Homer is where the crew — 38 in summer, 35 in winter — changes on Tuesdays, storage facilities are located and supplies are purchased. Seven regular and eight relief crew members, as well as eight terminal employees actually live in Homer.

Freight hauling means the state's ferry system works with Karavan Transfer and Carlile Trucking. Fuel is purchased from Petro Marine. Eagle Enterprises is the principal source of lifesaving and safety gear. NOMAR, Lakeshore Glass and Ulmer's Hardware also are regular vendors, according to information provided by AHMS.

When the Tustumena goes off its route for scheduled overhauls, and maintenance, another of the state's fleet, usually the M/V Kennecott, picks up the schedule.


Keeping to water deeper than the harbor, tankers and other large ships going up the inlet pull into Kachemak Bay to pick up marine pilots provided by the Southwest Alaska Pilots Association, with an office in Homer. On Monday, the pilot boat Mary Dele maneuvered through harbor ice and snow-filled clouds hanging above the water to deliver a pilot to a waiting tanker Monday afternoon.


Keeping a presence in the harbor are the lower Kenai Peninsula's two Alaska Wildlife Troopers, working out of the Anchor Point Trooper Post, E Detachment. Having a patrol boat in the harbor and at the end of a float means troopers can respond quickly. Working out of the harbor also means troopers can monitor most vessel traffic in the bay, almost all of which comes and goes from Homer.

The 33-foot Bayweld P/V Augustine usually moored in the harbor is on loan to Kodiak wildlife troopers. Local wildlife troopers now use a 27-foot Bayweld skiff with a center console enclosed cabin, but when Bayweld finishes another patrol vessel, they'll get that one for sea trials until it's ready to go to Ketchikan and the Augustine comes home. The skiff hasn't been used since November, said Trooper Trent Chwialkowski. Both Alaska State Troopers and Wildlife Troopers use the skiff or the Augustine to respond to calls.

Austin Baker and Jose Diaz coil fuel hoses at Petro Marine's marina.

That can mean search and rescue, going across the bay to Seldovia or Halibut Cove, and regular sea patrols enforcing fish and wildlife laws during busy periods.

"We typically are really busy during the spring, summer and fall," Chwialkowski said.

On busy holiday weekends like Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day, wildlife troopers will set up patrols. They also patrol during bear and goat hunting seasons. In the Augustine, that can be as far south as Port Dick at the southern end of the peninsula.

"Obviously, with our presence out there, people know the troopers are going to be around," Chwialkowski said. "They're going to follow the regulations better."

"Here's the thing," said Trooper Chwialkowski. "I really enjoy working this area. About 90 percent of the people I contact are enjoying Alaska like I do. I like to hunt, I like to fish, I like to be on the water."


Homer's water taxi operators have been sidelined by harbor ice, but are ready to swing back in action as soon as there's open water.

Deliveries of freight and people keep Mako's Water Taxi's three boats running year round.

"There's a bunch of us that are frozen in to the dock that have business we could conduct if there was someway we could get out of the harbor," said owner Mako Haggerty.

Roark Brown of Homer Ocean Charters has freight waiting to be delivered by the company's water taxi as soon as weather permits.

"And I've had a boat sitting in Kodiak for the last six weeks that I'd like to get home, but there hasn't been a stretch of weather where I'd want to do it," said Brown. "I wouldn't call it busy, but any income you have slows the tide of cash outflow."


Keeping an eye on the harbor 24 hours a day year round are the city of Homer's Harbormaster, Bryan Hawkins, deputy harbormaster Matt Clarke and five year-round harbor officers. Harbor officers work four 10-hour days a week. Harbor assistants work six-month and three-month positions during busier periods.

For senior harbor officer Chris Dabney and other officers, the job means a lot of walking — 5 miles daily for each officer. Every dock and float gets checked out at least three times a day. Harbor officers also drive around the harbor — the uplands, they call it — checking out the float systems from above. That helps deter theft and vandalism.

"If there's a guy at two in the morning driving around shining the spotlight, that looks good," Dabney said. "It keeps people honest."

Day-to-day jobs include maintenance, helping boats out of rafts and in the winter, a lot of snow removal. Recent blizzards kept harbor officers jumping, with even Hawkins and Clarke pitching in.

"There's a lot of little things that happen around the day," Dabney said.

Unusual events include boat fires and, as happened recently, helping a man rescue his dog after it jumped into the harbor. In the slow winter season, officers also do maintenance projects like repainting the Kids Don't Float personal flotation device storage boxes.

"It's been a great job for me. I've enjoyed it," he said. "It's one of the jobs where you're happy to see summer come on, but then you're happy to see winter come on."

As Petro Marine's marina manager Jose Diaz has spent the past nine years ensuring vessels have enough fuel to reach their destinations. The marina is open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. seven days a week in the winter, with longer hours in the summer. A second dock, known as the "fuel dock" is open from mid-May to the first week in September, providing fuel for larger commercial boats. Activity in the summer keeps a crew of 18 employees busy. In the winter, that is reduced to six-10 employees.

Although the number of boats going in and out of the harbor may change with the seasons, they still need fuel.

"Sometimes we get a handful of boats, sometimes nothing, but we've got to be here," said Diaz. "It's the only place to get fuel."

From his sea-level perspective, Diaz enjoys views that change with a shift of the tide, a rise or decrease in temperature and a change in the wind.

"I love it. Every day at the Homer Harbor is different," said Diaz. "I have the coolest job."

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com. Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.