By Larry Persily
Wrangell Sentinel 

Matanuska out of service; Columbia coming back; no ferry until Feb. 17


January 18, 2023 | View PDF

The state ferry Matanuska will not return to service from its winter overhaul as scheduled next month and will require millions of dollars more of steel replacement work if it is ever to get back to work.

In its place, the Alaska Marine Highway System plans to put the Columbia back to sea after almost 30 months in layup status to save money.

The loss of the Matanuska will mean more than a month without ferry service for Wrangell. The ship had been scheduled to resume sailings the first week of February to replace the Kennicott, which was pulled out of service last week for its annual winter overhaul.

The Kennicott last stopped in Wrangell on Jan. 11. The first scheduled visit by the Columbia is planned for northbound on Feb. 17, according to the schedule posted on the ferry system website as of Monday.

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The Columbia, however, is still in overhaul status this month and will need to pass U.S. Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping inspections before returning to service, the state reported.

While the Columbia was out of service last year, the state pulled its 55-foot-long propeller shafts and sent them to Seattle for turning on a large, mechanical lathe “to be sure they are straight and true and round per specifications, and any necessary corrections are made,” state Department of Transportation spokesman Sam Dapcevich said last summer.

The almost 50-year-old Columbia, the largest ship in the fleet at 418 feet long and with room for almost 500 passengers, will take over the weekly run from late February through the summer months between Bellingham, Washington, and Southeast, same as the Matanuska.

The Matanuska has been in winter overhaul at the Ketchikan shipyard operated by Vigor Alaska since November. The Alaska Marine Highway System announced last week that the vessel would not return to service anytime soon.

Workers discovered more “wasted” steel than anticipated, in addition to finding asbestos in damaged and exposed wallboard and flooring, according to information presented to the Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board on Jan. 6.

“There has always been asbestos on these aging vessels,” Katherine Keith, Department of Transportation deputy commissioner, said at the citizens advisory board meeting.

The Matanuska has been moved out of the shipyard drydock, steel replacement and other work is on pause and the ship is tied up, waiting for the state to decide the future of the almost 60-year-old vessel. The department will run “further scenarios” on repair costs and the ship’s remaining life before deciding the next move, Keith said.

While the overhaul project is on pause, the state and Vigor will look into potential solutions, she said.

If the ship goes back into the shop for an extended period, the state is considering eliminating dead-end corridors and upgrading the ship’s fire and smoke detection systems at the same time as the steel work.

Some asbestos cleanup will continue in the meantime, as the ferry system plans to use the Matanuska as a “hotel ship” for staff in Ketchikan and needs to maintain a safe workplace.

The original cost of the Matanuska’s winter overhaul was estimated at about $1.5 million, Keith told the Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board. Driven higher mostly by the additional steel work, the overhaul cost could increase to between $8 million and $10 million.

“We’re still trying to quantify that,” Keith told the board.

“I guess what concerns me at this stage of the game is that it gets worse,” said Ed Page, a member of the advisory board which was created by the Legislature last year. “The story (keeps) on getting worse and worse as far as the cost of getting the thing back in service.”

Although similar in size, the Matanuska and Columbia have a key difference in operational abilities. The Matanuska meets the international Safety of Life at Sea standards that allow it to provide service between Ketchikan and Prince Rupert, British Columbia; the Columbia does not. As such, monthly runs to Prince Rupert that had been on the Matanuska’s summer schedule will be picked up by the Kennicott, which will divert once a week from its voyages across the Gulf of Alaska to make a Rupert-to-Southeast run.

The state ferry fleet has dwindled in recent years with the sale of the Taku in 2018, the so-called fast ferries Chenega and Fairweather in 2020, and the Malaspina last year.

This story includes reporting by Scott Bowlen of the Ketchikan Daily News.


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