Story last updated at 4:38 p.m. Thursday, June 13, 2002

Tustumena crew made ferry voyage complete
Nick C. Varney
photo: oped
  Photo by Marjanne Schneider
Whale Pass was one of the many shorelines the Tustumena sails through on its voyage along the Alaska Peninsula.  
When I first discussed this series with my editor, he expressed some concern as to whether I would end up with enough material to do several installments without repetitive dialogue and offending just about everyone on the boat. Well, after traveling a week with The Poop Group, assorted avid birders, the ship's crew, and passengers whose backgrounds ran from college professors to those requiring a major adjustment in their meds, I could easily do another four without a threat of a major lawsuit. But, alas, this will be the final docking for this series.

After departing Akutan, the weather continued to improve. Mountains hauntingly shaped like worn sharks' teeth drifted out of the mist and great stretches of wave-sculpted shorelines floated into view. Occasionally, we would sail by a beach covered by enough ancient debris to start a second-hand store. Each piece of flotsam, ensconced in its coffin of sand, seemed to call out with a tale its own. I was fascinated by one huge rusted ship's hulk smashed up against a set of cliffs. I still don't know the story behind the wreck but it made me review the ferry's abandon-ship procedures. The day ended with the ocean bathed in a gold-drenched sunset that set small islands aglow as if they were permanently anchored warning beacons exposed sporadically by undulating waves.

The next day I was invited to tour the engine room and maintenance facilities of the ship. It was a fascinating visitation. With the equipment and expertise of the maintenance team, I'm positive that they could rebuild the entire ship from the inside out without touching shore. Not only that, they could do it blindfolded (that'll cost 'em a beer). Hey, even their backup systems had back ups. I discovered that fact when I asked about would happen during a complete engine-systems failure. They grinned and handed me an oar. Just kidding.

Later on, I received an invitation to the bridge where I was given an excellent briefing on the ship's navigation equipment and operational procedures. They had a plethora of navigation aids, radars, radios and generally cool stuff that I would love to have on my craft except that it would sink like a torpedoed single-seat kayak with just half of that gear on board. Unfortunately, I do have to report that the ferry lacked one very important device. I did not see a Model "Mega Doom VI, Doppler enhanced, Plasma Display Fish Finder with 11 underwater fish-call options. I was shocked, but held my tongue because the crew was so busy that they probably didn't get a lot of time to troll anyway.

Another procedure that I was curious about was the very well executed "abandon-ship drill" held at the beginning of the voyage. Ship Tip: Include an expanded video for the passengers. There is a difference between "sliding down a chute" and "dropping down a chute". One requires the spirit of adventure, the other, unless you are prepared for it, requires a change of underwear. I've done both, so trust me on this. A full demonstration escape tape could be a premiere addition the safety program. Of course, who am I to suggest? I've sunk three times and made it to shore by swimming so fast that the tide came in two hours early. The phenomenon during the third mishap was especially strange because it occurred on a lake.

Finally, I would like to give you another insight into the pleasure of riding the Tustumena. Again, it lies with its crew. They helped Marjanne Schneider and Freddie Erickson give Gid Cooper a surprise 75th birthday party. The dude was presented with a huge cake, ice cream and a plate of king crab that Jabba the Hut would have asphyxiated on, all compliments of the ship. According to Gid, Marjanne missed the beginning of the party because she had inadvertently taped herself to one of the walls while decorating for the event. Slim Sorrows stood by Gid's yarn, while Freddie denied the incident. I can't repeat Marjanne's response.

My deepest thanks to the dedicated Tustumena ferry crew members who shared their time and knowledge with me. Especially, Mark, John, Richard, Charlie, Bob, another John, and Cecil.

One of these days, I would like to travel and report on the entire Alaska Marine Highway System. Of course, after this story, the only thing the state might offer would be to drag me behind in a rodent- chewed dinghy.