By Larry Persily
Wrangell Sentinel 

State plans to send Matanuska into shipyard for full-hull scan

 

September 27, 2023 | View PDF



The state wants to send the Matanuska, the oldest vessel in the Alaska Marine Highway System fleet, into a shipyard for the equivalent of a full-body scan. Management wants to find out just how much of the ship’s steel has rusted, and how far the rust has eaten into the thickness of the metal.

The 60-year-old Matanuska has been tied up at the dock in Ketchikan since last November, waiting for the state to decide whether to repair the vessel and restore it to working order, or give up on the ship.

“We know we have bad steel,” Craig Tornga, marine director for the state ferry system, said at the Southeast Conference in Sitka last week. Exactly how much bad steel is unknown, he said.

The ship also has dead-end deck corridors which the U.S. Coast Guard wants opened up for safety. But the state doesn’t want to spend any money on topside upgrades and repairs until it knows whether the hull is sound, Tornga said in a Sept. 19 panel discussion on Southeast Alaska transportation issues.

The hope is to find a shipyard that can perform the hull scan sometime later this fall. The Vigor yard in Ketchikan is too busy to take on the job, Tornga said, so the state will need to find a drydock with a schedule opening.

The state could go to work on steel repairs without the full scan, he explained, but it’s better to know the extent of the bad metal before sandblasting and uncovering more damage than anticipated. Coast Guard rules require a minimum steel thickness of the hull, and sandblasting rust-damaged steel could reduce it down below the minimum.

Meanwhile, ferry system management is meeting with the Coast Guard to determine a path forward to solving the problem of the dead-end corridors.

Tornga took over the job of marine director on April 3, moving to Ketchikan from Houston, where he worked in the maritime industry. Unable to find suitable housing, he said he and his wife have been living aboard the Malaspina, a former state ferry sold last year to the operator of a cruise ship terminal at Ward Cove, north of downtown Ketchikan.

The terminal owner is using the Malaspina for summer employee housing, and made a four-berth cabin available for the Torngas. But with plans to winterize the vessel soon to sit dormant until next year, Tornga said he is hoping to find a traditional onshore residence soon.

“I’ve quickly learned the passion in Southeast Alaska” for the ferry system, he told the Sitka conference audience. He acknowledged the state does not really have a long-range plan for assembling and maintaining an adequate fleet, particularly as age and high costs have cut into the number of operable vessels.

The Alaska Marine Highway System would be better served with a standardization of design as it replaces its oldest ships, he said. “Right now, we have a lot of one-offs.”

The state still hopes to go to bid early this fall on a replacement vessel for the 59-year-old Tustumena, which serves the Gulf of Alaska run all the way out to the Aleutian Islands. The new ship, estimated at $325 million, is not expected before 2027.

“We need to build new vessels,” Tornga said. “This isn’t a quick turnaround.”

The ferry system’s first effort a year ago to find a shipyard to build a replacement for the Tustumena failed when no one bid on the job. The state has been working on plans for a replacement ferry for more than a decade.

“When the keel’s down in the shipyard and the welders are working, we’ll know we have a boat,” Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman said at the Southeast Conference.

In addition to the Matanuska, built in 1963, the Columbia, built in 1973, the LeConte (1974) and Aurora (1977) are all a decade older than the average Alaskan.

In addition to an aging fleet, the marine highway system is contending with chronic crew shortages. The past couple of years have been especially difficult after far more onboard crew quit or retired than new employees were hired.

“We’re really struggling on the crews,” Tornga said, noting that the ferry system had to shut down the Hubbard for a couple of days mid-month due to a lack of enough crew.

Hiring efforts, including small bonuses, have failed to fill all the openings.

 

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