Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 4:59 PM on Wednesday, August 17, 2011

After years of service, Chilkat's future uncertain

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer


Photographer: McKibben Jackinsky, Homer News

The M/V Chilkat, a former state of Alaska ferry, awaits permission to enter Homer Harbor.

Driving off the Spit one evening last week, I was surprised to see the M/V Chilkat — its hull a faded blue with an equally faded yellow stripe, the topside coated in a white paint that appeared to be chipping away.

"Dad, there's the Chilkat," I said to my 95-year-old father sitting next to me.

Back in the day, the Chilkat was part of the Alaska Marine Highway System. So was Dad. He began with AMHS as an able bodied seaman at the age of 47; he retired 34 years later as the system's senior captain.

"Where?" he asked, his eyes following my pointing finger.

There it sat, all 97-feet of her at the water line, at the Homer Spit Marine Terminal.

The boxy shape looked worn and weary, nothing like ships in the state's current fleet nor anything like privately owned ferries and water taxies plying Kachemak Bay.

"One of my first assignments as a captain was as relief skipper on the Chilkat," said Dad, adding "I was so proud."

During Dad's lengthy AMHS career, our family became well acquainted with ships' routes, crews' rotations and annual maintenance of the fleet. Dad's progression to captain required hours of studying and test taking. Yet somehow his assignment on the Chilkat had skipped my notice.

Built by J. M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corp, in Tacoma, Wash., the Chilkat was delivered to the territory of Alaska in May 1957. In "The Grand Ships of the Alaska Marine Highway System," author Dave Kiffer recalls the Chilkat cost $300,000. Its bow ramp allowed loading directly from the beach, as well as a dock. Its mission was to pick up where its predecessor, the Chilkoot, left off.

The Chilkoot — a flat-bottomed, 121-foot refitted, World War II surplus landing craft-tank — was owned by three Haines residents and provided transportation for passengers and vehicles between Skagway, Haines and Juneau in the late 1940s. The territory of Alaska purchased the Chilkoot in 1951, retired it in 1957 and replaced it with the Chilkat, according to author Sherry Simpson in "Alaska's Ocean Highways, a Travel Adventure Aboard Northern Ferries." In 1959, the federal government transferred ownership of the Chilkat to the newly formed state of Alaska.

A year later, the state took a giant step toward developing its current fleet when voters approved an $18 million bond, the first of several, to help finance vessels, terminals and vessel improvements. Officially named the Alaska Marine Highway System in 1963, AMHS's first ship to be constructed was the M/V Malaspina. Its maiden voyage was on Jan. 23, 1963, with Dad an AB on the ship's "A" crew.

The Chilkat's original route was patterned after the Chilkoot's. In 1963, it began a Cordova-to-Valdez run. In 1969, it was moved to a Juneau-Hoonah route, which is when Dad spent time on the ship. In 1977, the Chilkat was assigned a Ketchikan-Hollis-Metlakatla run. Its ability to handle rough water frequently encountered on that route caused passengers to nickname it "the vomit comet," said Barry Manning, chief engineer on the Chilkat from 1985-1988 and currently chief engineer on the M/V Tustumena.

In 1988, the state sold the Chilkat for $50,000 to a private party, said Manning. Since then, it has faded in and out of Alaska's marine industry, sometimes hauling fish, sometimes hauling Christmas trees.

"They just couldn't find a spot for it," Bob Crowley, master of the M/V Tustumena, said of owners since the Chilkat left service to the state.

For the past few years, the Chilkat has been anchored in Seldovia Bay. During part of that time, a crew attempted to refit it for salting cod.

"The owner of the Chilkat, Buzz Richards, contacted me about doing a fisheries operation off the Chilkat," said John Enge of Central Point, Ore., part of a team recruited to do the work. Enge has had a career as a seafood plant and production manager. "They raised some money, but it turned out to not be enough to do the whole job."

Enge's interest in restoring antique automobiles fit well with appreciating original parts of the ship, such as a brass spotlight, a uniquely designed spinner for keeping windshields free of water and ice, and several types of bronze, aluminum and brass used in the Chilkat's construction.

"It was built to last forever," said Enge.

Thorn Tasker was recently hired by individuals interested in buying the ship to inspect the Chilkat. Tasker was prevented from bringing it into Homer's harbor last week because of concerns about the ship's condition, said Deputy Harbormaster Matt Clarke. However, negotiations are currently underway that may make it possible after all, Clarke told the Homer News on Tuesday.

For now, the Chilkat is anchored in Kachemak Bay, its future uncertain.

"Maybe they'll find a use for it," said Manning. "It's got a lot of potential. It can go anywhere, do anything. It just needs dollars to do the job you want it to do."

Crowley, who has been on the Tustumena since 1976, likened the Chilkat's predicament to what life must be like after so many years with AMHS.

"When you leave the ferry system, you're kind of adrift," he said.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.