Matanuska breakdown fourth since February

The 58-year-old Matanuska has been at the dock in Ketchikan since Sunday morning, waiting for repairs, and is not expected to return to service until Saturday.

It is the ship's fourth mechanical breakdown since February, stranding passengers and imposing costs and delays on travelers with few options.

"The Matanuska is still in Ketchikan awaiting parts for repair of the starboard engine," the Alaska Marine Highway System reported in a website posting Tuesday afternoon. "It is anticipated the vessel will get underway northbound Saturday afternoon."

The state said it would publish an updated schedule sometime Wednesday.

The 408-foot-long mainline ferry, the only ship scheduled to call on Wrangell all summer, pulled into Ketchikan early Sunday morning on its northbound run out of Bellingham, Washington. Its next stop was planned for Wrangell.

The community is scheduled to see the Matanuska once a week northbound and once southbound through September - both stops were canceled this week.

"It's so unreliable now," Wrangell Mayor Stephen Prysunka said Tuesday.

The Matanuska was first delayed on Sunday after two crew members tested positive for COVID-19. It was similar to a week ago Sunday, also on the first stop out of Bellingham, when two engineering crew members tested positive, and the ship was delayed 11 hours in Ketchikan.

"Out of an abundance of caution, the Matanuska was held in Ketchikan while the entire crew was tested," state Department of Transportation spokesman Sam Dapcevich said of the most recent Sunday delay.

The two crew members will isolate in their homes, one in Ketchikan and the other in quarantine aboard the ferry until the ship arrives in Juneau and the crew member cam go home for isolation, the state reported.

The ship was booked with a light load out of Ketchikan, just 34 passengers, the state reported. About three dozen passengers and two dozen vehicles got off at their stop in Ketchikan. None of the 34 passengers booked to travel farther north are considered close contacts of the infected crew, Dapcevich said.

The engine troubles were reported after the ship was held up for COVID testing.

This week's breakdown is the fourth in about two months. The ship was taken out of service late March for repairs to its starboard engine and replacement of power-pack cylinder units on its port engine, Dapcevich reported then.

The ferry also was pulled out of service mid-March, and was pulled off its run in February with problems in its port-side reduction gear box.

"Our ferry system is barely afloat, and this is just further proof of that depressing fact," Sitka Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins said Tuesday.

The Matanuska was out for repairs for almost the entire first half of 2020 for extensive repairs to its reduction-gear system, leaving Southeast communities with no ferry service for almost two months until another ship could be put to work.

It was a troubled return to service for the ship after an almost two-year stint in the Vigor shipyard in Portland 2018-2019 for new engines and other extensive work, at cost of more than $40 million.

The system's other two larger-capacity vessels, the 58-year-old Malaspina, and 48-year-old Columbia, are out of service in need of multimillion-dollar repairs and upgrades.

For the ships that are running, the state last week announced it had boosted the allowable passenger capacity to 75% aboard the vessels from the 50% limit imposed to

maintain social distancing and help prevent COVID-19 infections.

The new 75% capacity limit will apply to the Matanuska and Kennicott, which also serves Bellingham, and the three ships that recently came back into service for the busier summer schedule: the Aurora, which will serve Prince William Sound; the LeConte, which runs between Juneau, Haines and Skagway; and the Tustemena, which serves the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak and Southwest Alaska.


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