In mid-January, everyone aboard the ferry Tustumena was miserable.
Each year, the Alaska Marine Highway System takes the Tustumena out of regular service and sails it across the Gulf of Alaska to bring legislators, their staffers and housewares from Southcentral to Juneau.
The trips coincide with the Gulf’s stormiest season, and some of this year’s trips were miserable even by those standards.
John Mayer is one of the Tustumena’s captains. He wasn’t on this particular voyage, but he knows it well.
“The Gulf of Alaska is the cradle of storms that go across North America. It has no mercy on you when you really get going,” he said, sharing a line once used by an oil-tanker captain.
In the Gulf’s heavy winter seas, the 52-year-old Tustumena lurched forward, rising and plunging with every wave. Green water frequently washed over the windows of the ship’s forward observation lounge. From its headquarters in Ketchikan, the ferry system repeatedly issued notices that the ship’s arrival would be delayed, and that its departure from Juneau would be late as well. The ferry system’s own satellite tracking service showed the Tustumena struggling forward at a meager 4 knots.
At sea, the Tustumena slammed into oncoming waves again and again. Suddenly, there was a titanic wave — so big that its impact rattled the whole ship and made a memorable jolt even in a trip filled with them.
In the hull of the Tustumena, a place called Void No. 1, steel cracked under the force of this wave and all the others that came before it.
“It’s cumulative,” Mayer said. “The analogy I like to use: How many times can you bend a paperclip until it breaks?”
The Tustumena’s crew regularly inspects Void No. 1. On one of those inspections after the ship’s mid-January trip, a crewman found a crack and notified the ship’s captain. He told administrators. Those administrators, in turn, brought in Patrick Eberhardt of Coastwise Corp., the sole naval architecture firm in Alaska.
Eberhardt found not one crack but four. One was 3 inches long.
On their own, the cracks didn’t endanger the safety of the Tustumena. Collectively, and given the ship’s history, they told a story of concern.
“The cracking … in Void #1 has been occurring for many years and has been the subject of multiple investigation reports and repairs,” Eberhardt wrote in a report dated May 12.
He noted signs of previous repairs in the same area.
“All of the repairs in these regions appear to have been repairs of cracks and/or minor structural modifications to reduce stress in the affected areas. Repairs to this area of the vessel are now being conducted frequently, on an annual basis. … Unless significant improvements are made to the subject structure, the chance of damage reoccurring and/or becoming worse is high.”
Eberhardt completed his report with a handful of extraordinary recommendations. In addition to repairing the cracks, and regularly inspecting for future damage, he demanded the Marine Highway keep the Tustumena out of extremely rough waters, completely “stop using the Tustumena for ‘Cross Gulf of Alaska’ trips” and conduct a detailed analysis of the stresses causing the cracks, something that will cost several hundred thousand dollars — and potentially much more if the analysis turns up problems.
The Tustumena is still safe to sail, but there’s no way to know how long it will stay that way.
With that in mind, Eberhardt said the ferry system must begin “a discussion of vessel end of life operations.”
In other words, it’s time for a new Tustumena.
‘It’s our lifeline’
To understand why the Tustumena matters, you need to leave Southeast Alaska, where almost all of the state’s ferries work. Travel west: Go to Homer, Kodiak and Dutch Harbor, where the ship spreads its wake.
From the dock in Homer, the Tustumena looks like a slightly smaller version of the Malaspina, Matanuska or Taku, the other three ferries built when the state ferry system was born shortly after Alaska statehood.
As your eyes travel from the bow to the stern, they’re inevitably drawn to a towering construction aft. “Tustumena is remarkable for her unique vehicle elevator and turntable system,” declared Bruce Hutchison of Seattle marine engineering firm Glosten Associates, in a 1998 paper.
That elevator means the Tustumena can take trucks, container vans, RVs and almost anything else from cannery docks and city piers, regardless of tidal swings up to 32 feet.
In Southeast Alaska, ferry docks tend to be owned by the state. In Southwest Alaska, in the places served by the Tustumena, they’re owned by communities or fish canneries.
Only the Tustumena and the ferry Kennicott, built in 1998, have elevators that can serve these docks, and the Kennicott (86 feet longer than the 382-foot Tustumena) is too large to fit alongside some of them.
“Oh, my goodness. It’s our lifeline. It’s our highway,” said Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, when asked about the importance of the Tustumena. “How important is food everyday? That’s pretty much it. It’s crucial to Kodiak and to a lot of the coastal communities that go out the chain.”
Jim Ashford spent 40 years as the manager of the Kodiak ferry terminal. He was there when the Tustumena arrived in Kodiak for the first time. It was July 1964, four months after the Good Friday earthquake brought a tsunami that destroyed much of the city.
“People in Kodiak set their lives around the ferry,” he said. “I know of many, many guides and lodges or so forth that set their schedules around the ferry schedule.”
“We’re the only show up here,” Tustumena captain Mayer said. “When we go down, there’s nothing that can fill in for us. We’re kind of like a one-pony show.”
Sometimes, that show can be fairly spectacular.
Each year, the Tustumena (or the Kennicott) hauls the carnival rides and amusements for Kodiak’s annual king crab festival. It hauls Christmas trees in November and vans of frozen fish year-round.
One year, it hauled the circus. “Before I was here, they carried the circus one time to Kodiak, and the whole car deck looked like Noah’s Ark,” Mayer said.
“The crew used to haul pumpkins out to all the villages (for Halloween),” Ashford said. “It used to be that all the crew would want to go on the pumpkin run.”
Those days are gone, he added.
“It’s been a workhorse, but it was time to replace it a long time ago.”
On July 12, the state of Alaska published a draft amendment to its “Statewide Transportation Improvement Program,” a document that outlines what transportation projects are planned for the next four years.
“AMHS Tustumena Replacement Vessel” is listed in the amendment with a total estimated cost of $237 million.
About 90 percent of the money would come from the federal government. The remaining 10 percent is expected to come from the ferry system’s vessel replacement fund, which has a balance of $49 million, according to figures provided by the Alaska Office of Management and Budget.
Michael Neussl is the deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation in charge of the ferry system.
“The next hurdle along the line of hurdles is money. We have to get the funding in place to award that construction contract,” he said.
That hurdle is a big one.
“Where are we getting the money? The state’s broke. You’re going to hear that,” said Rep. Stutes.
The Alaska Legislature finished its second special session in July without fully closing the gap on Alaska’s now-$3 billion budget deficit.
With state savings forecast to run out by 2020, Walker is expected to propose a miniscule budget in December, his deadline for delivering next year’s proposal for the Legislature.
There will be significant pressure on all parts of state government to make do and avoid significant expenses. That pressure will fall on the ferry system, too.
“The ship is safe. I have no concerns about operating this ship in the North Pacific Ocean,” said Neussl of AMHS.
The U.S. Coast Guard agrees, and so does the American Bureau of Shipping. Both agencies inspect the state’s ferries for safety.
Coast Guard Cmdr. Michael R. Franklin is chief of the inspections division at Coast Guard Sector Anchorage. “Both ABS and Coast Guard have certified it as safe,” he said by phone from Anchorage.
In fact, the Coast Guard doesn’t even agree with the operating restrictions suggested by Eberhardt and voluntarily implemented by the ferry system.
“That’s a third-party report; that’s not a regulatory report,” Franklin said of Eberhardt’s recommendations. “We don’t see the need for the restriction because it is in good service.”
If the Tustumena is safe to operate, why is the Marine Highway so eager to replace it?
“At a certain point, with the effort required and the time required and the money required to maintain it, it makes more sense to replace it,” Neussl said.
When it comes to replacing ferries, few people know better than Mark Collins, vice president of strategic planning and community engagement for BC Ferries, which serves British Columbia with the largest fleet in North America.
BC Ferries operates 34 vessels, 10 more than Washington State Ferries, which has the largest fleet in the United States.
“There is no one single measure or parameter that answers the question” of when a ferry should be replaced, he said.
While the Tustumena is 52 years old, that simple fact doesn’t tell the whole story. Instead, ferry systems look at “risk factors,” he explained. There are four broad factors that go into a decision to replace a ferry: the quality of the original build, obsolescence, mechanical and structural conditions, then social risks.
He compared operating a ferry to driving an older car. “It’s always cheaper to keep my old beater going … but at some point, these other factors come in despite it being a financially optimal course,” he said.
An unusual build
When it comes to the Tustumena’s original build, the quality should be self-evident, says naval architect John Waterhouse of Elliott Bay Design Group in Seattle. “Clearly, the ship has been designed correctly for the stresses because it has been in service for almost 50 years,” he said by phone.
“You can’t argue with that kind of success,” said Eberhardt of Coastwise, “but that’s not an engineering answer that helps us determine when the end of life occurs.”
Furthermore, Eberhardt and others have argued that the extensive changes to the Tustumena since its initial construction have put unpredicted stresses on the vessel.
The Tustumena was originally designed to travel between Anchorage and Kodiak. Built in Wisconsin, it was the victim of cost-cutting efforts. Instead of 305-foot ship, the Wisconsin shipyard turned out a 240-foot one.
“I’m well pleased with the Tustumena,” Gov. Bill Egan told an Empire reporter when the new ship arrived in Juneau for the first time in 1964. “She’s a tight little ship and should be a great asset to the economy of Alaska when she begins to ply her way between westward ports.”
Kodiak residents dubbed the new ship the “Trusty Tusty,” but National Geographic took a somewhat dimmer view when it dubbed a Tustumena cruise “the Dramamine Express.”
That was more than rhetorical flourish. In 1969, the Tustumena returned to the shipyard and was cut in half to allow the addition of a 56-foot-long middle section.
The ship was again expanded in 1988 when its superstructure was lengthened by 20 feet.
Eberhardt said it’s possible that when the Tustumena was lengthened, it was weakened. He compared the situation to a long wooden beam. A short beam can support heavier loads without bending or breaking than can a long beam of the same thickness.
The newly added section might have been designed well, he explained, “but you’re still left with the remaining structure fore and aft.”
Adding to his concerns is the fact that he can’t find any structural calculations used in the Tustumena’s design. There’s no data about the waves the ship was designed to withstand.
“I could never lay my hands on any kinds of structural calculations on this vessel,” he said. “In the absence of this structural data, that was one of the risk factors.”
Partially because of pressure from Eberhardt, the Alaska Marine Highway System has issued a contract worth as much as $500,000 to Waterhouse’s Elliott Bay Design Group in order to perform those calculations by Oct. 1.
As Neussl explained, the analysis is expensive, but it will give the state one of three possible answers: “The structure is adequate and capable of handling the loads; or those limits that we have emplaced are now mandatory and have to remain in place because the structure is not adequate and will crack again if we exceed those limits. Or — hopefully not — this is extremely poorly designed and it will crack no matter what you do, and you should replace it. Hopefully it will not be that.”
Obsolete but workable
At 52 years old, the Tustumena is older than the first Ford Mustang. “This vessel was designed with a slide rule,” Eberhardt said.
While that’s not necessarily bad, it means the Tustumena doesn’t take advantage of the latest developments in streamlining and efficiency to generate better fuel economy.
It wasn’t designed with the handicapped in mind, and at least one crewman said he doesn’t think it complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Computer systems become obsolete in five years,” said Collins of BC Ferries. Ships take much longer to become obsolete, but it still happens. Parts become more difficult to find; the design no longer follows best practices or procedures, and things simply don’t work as well as they might, even when they’re maintained properly.
“Risk goes up with age,” Collins said. “It is mitigated by good maintenance, good operating practices and so forth, but there’s no doubt that risk goes up for age.”
‘Crew of MacGyvers’
Age also means that things tend to break more often.
“There’s no worse job in the state of Alaska than to try to keep this system running with the lack of funds,” Eberhardt said.
“It’s almost like a crew of MacGyvers,” Mayer said, referring to the 1980s TV series. “These guys, from the engineers to the deckhands, we get on it. It’s a can-do ship and a can-do crew.”
Once, he recalled, the elevator turntable broke down in port, “so instead of shutting down and waiting for parts, we hooked up the ship’s forklift and towed it around.”
The Tustumena is inspected regularly to ensure those breakdowns aren’t a safety problem, and it is overhauled each year to ensure it can keep its operating certification from the U.S. Coast Guard.
“It’s a very extensive exam, which addresses any of the issues that may come up,” Coast Guard Cmdr. Franklin said.
Those inspections and the problems they find are costing the state money. In 2003, the Tustumena underwent a $7.5 million overhaul in Portland. A decade later, the Tustumena’s stay in the Seward shipyard cost $7.774 million. Much of those expenses are paid for by the federal government, but the state also has to chip in hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.
The Alaska Marine Highway does not have a single document that readily tracks the cost of overhauls and ferry renovations, but the Empire’s examination of budget documents filed with the Alaska Legislature found Tustumena’s annual overhaul expenses costing hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
“Overhaul work is costly,” the ferry system declared in a 2008 budget document requesting $806,000 from the Legislature for the Tustumena and millions more for the rest of the fleet.
In 2009, the request was $721,000; in 2011, it was $750,000. It was $600,000 in 2013.
Those figures are above and beyond the everyday costs — fuel, crew and ordinary maintenance — needed to keep the Tustumena running.
And even with those expenses, there’s no guarantee against a sudden end. On Nov. 20, 2007, one day before the long Thanksgiving weekend, Washington State Ferries abruptly pulled four Steel Electric-class ferries out of service because of corrosion issues.
Washington state transportation secretary Paula Hammond ordered the action. At the time, she said the four boats, 80 years old, had reached “a turning point that requires emergency action.”
The ferries never returned to service and were ultimately scrapped.
“We are nowhere near that on the Tustumena,” Neussl said. “The goal is that the existing Tustumena will run until the replacement is … built and put into service and then, ideally, it’ll be a one for one replacement. The old Tustumena will stop running, and the new Tustumena will start running.”
‘A whole bunch of
Every few years, the Tustumena goes into an extended overhaul. In November 2012, the Tustumena entered Seward Ship’s Drydock for one of those stays. It was expected to leave the Seward yard in March 2013.
“Every time we put it into an annual overhaul, we find more corrosion, more steel work that needs to be done,” Neussl said, and the Seward stay was no different.
Instead of leaving in March, the Tustumena stayed throughout the summer as inspectors, having access to new spaces, kept finding corroded and wasted steel.
The ship didn’t return to service until fall 2013, having spent almost an entire year in the shipyard.
The concern about corrosion and steel is exacerbated because of the extreme forces exerted on the Tustumena by the towering waves of the open ocean.
“This is a pretty unique vessel. It sees very, very serious weather, and its risk factor in terms of sea state and seakeeping is pretty high,” Eberhardt said.
Every wave has an effect.
“Each of those waves causes the hull to flex or bend a little bit,” Waterhouse said. “There is no one wave; it’s 10 million waves (that causes damage).”
If you take a paperclip and bend it a little, he explained, the paperclip will bend back. “If you bend it too much, it’ll deform,” he said. “After enough times, that paperclip will break. One way to think of the Tustumena is that it’s a whole bunch of paperclips.”
Ready to go
In the 1960s, when the Tustumena arrived in Kodiak, locals called it the ‘Trusty’ Tusty. Now, there’s a new appellation: It’s the ‘Rusty’ Tusty.
“People consistently have their plans changed because of inadequate and unstable service, and that’s the story of the Tustumena and Kodiak,” Ashford said.
Residents in places even farther out the Alaska Peninsula and on to Dutch Harbor rely on the Tustumena for fresh produce and fresh visitors. When the Tustumena doesn’t come, neither did they.
“It’s hard to do anything with the Tustumena whenever the schedule is so unstable,” Ashford said. “Nothing comes easy. I just think we’ve got to strive for regular service, safely done, and contribute to the Alaska economy, and we’ve got to be able to do that safely.”
Residents simply want reliability without frills, they said.
“I just think it’s part of rural Alaska,” Stutes said. “You meet your friends on the boat. From Homer to Kodiak, you have 12 to 14 hours. It’s (like) a big car, and your kids are playing their games, you’re playing cards, I’m playing (cribbage). It’s so crucial. I hate to think what our coastal communities would be without our marine highway system.”
Tustumena skipper John Mayer called his ship “public transportation,” not a cruise ship, but that doesn’t take away from a certain kind of joy.
“I love this job,” he said. “I couldn’t work another job. … There’s a satisfaction. Just today, pulling into Kodiak, little girls were yelling down, ‘Hello, daddy!’ We were bringing them home.”
Mayer’s own children have ridden on the Tustumena, and he believes that speaks to his belief in the continued safety of the ship, cracks and all, breakdowns and all.