WRANGELL NARROWS — The conversation and good-natured banter among the wheelhouse crew on the bridge of the Columbia transitions to silence as the 418-foot ferry nears Neal Point, an early mark in the 22-mile channel that by one count will require 43 course corrections.
Capt. Dave Turner and Chief Mate Lucas Bevegni have transited the Wrangell Narrows more times than they can count, but it is always different. There is current and wind and shoaling and other vessels in the waterway — and, in this era, some expensive, new-looking docks with wake-sensitive owners. In their favor on this day is the absence of inclement weather, a regular foe. It doesn’t lessen the need for intense concentration in getting the nearly 50-year-old Columbia, with its 85-foot beam, through the snaky waterway.
Safely traversing Southeast Alaska’s waterways is a normal part of the job for Turner and Bevegni, and the other U.S. Coast Guard-licensed officers and non-licensed crew who do the job every day.
“The only reason we have six (ships) operating is because of the willingness of crews to work over” scheduled time off, Craig Tornga, director of AMHS, told the ferry board at its July meeting. They are the reason the system can operate its full schedule with about 60% of the budgeted crew.
The shortage of licensed crew is nationwide, but AMHS also faces a competitive disadvantage, Tornga told them. Other employers, including the federal government, offer better conditions and newer vessels, sometimes with significant hiring bonuses. In-house issues at the ferry, particularly problems with payroll, have prompted people to quit and deterred others who might apply. It’s bad enough that the local hall of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association advised its members not to hire on to the ferry system.
But apprehension about working for the ferry isn’t new, according to Ralph Mirsky, the executive director of Sealink Inc., a Ketchikan business that has placed more than 800 people in various maritime programs over the years. What he hears the most about from mariners stems from changes put in place by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
“(Dunleavy) had this approach, ‘hang on to your hats, times are changing!’ But it didn’t happen. People still need transportation,” Mirsky said.
There is less talk about “turning (the ferry) into a tourist ship” these days, Mirsky continued, but concern about working for AMHS remains, especially with “ships breaking down.”
None of that is about the skilled mariners employed by the ferry, many of whom have been there a long time. There are currently 451 vessel crew members, said Sam Dapcevich, a spokesperson for AMHS, adding that total fluctuates from day to day. About 290 are engineering and bridge crew, with the balance being passenger services, he said.
More than a few on board Columbia this week are assigned to other ships, but on as relief. Others are “holdover” where they’ve picked up another two-week commitment during scheduled time off because there isn’t licensed crew to replace them. They know that some people point to the fact they get overtime, but they’d also like to go home.
Navigating the Narrows
The 38-hour voyage of the Columbia from Bellingham, Washington, to Ketchikan in mid-July was typical of the ferry’s regular run this season. After offloading and onloading passengers and vehicles it is now enroute to Wrangell, then Petersburg, then Sitka, then Juneau. From there it will travel the Lynn Canal, Juneau to Skagway and back to Juneau. Then it returns to Bellingham. All of those stops include the exchange of passengers and vehicles in about two hours or less.
The scenery is staggering from the bridge, although none of the crew is focused on that. Capt. Dave Turner announces the next compass heading for the ship in the Wrangell Narrows, “three-four-zero,” in effect taking over for the conning officer who remains focused on equipment. “Three-four-zero,” repeats the helmsman. It starts a steady exchange, 3-5-1, 3-5-1, then 3-5-7, 3-5-7, interspersed with “midships,” which centers the rudder, stabilizing the ship.
His eyes alternate from the water and channel markers to various navigational equipment. The largest screen is the ECDIS or chart system, which shows the waterway, various channel markers and other details, the course line, and exactly where the ship is in relation to it all.
Turner, a seaworn captain with 40 years of experience, is normally assigned to the Kennecott, one of three ships in the fleet on the dock in Ketchikan pending repairs. He’s on the Columbia as relief captain so the officers regularly assigned to the ship get some well-deserved time off. Turner hasn’t run the Wrangell Narrows since the fall and he tells the wheelhouse crew, “keep a sharp eye on me.” They are trained to speak up, but not every captain is that encouraging.
There are three officers on the bridge, including Bevegni and a pilot, as well as an ordinary seaman (OS) and an able seaman (AB), and two cadets. Ann Griswold, another OS, is out on the bow of the ship with a handheld radio.
“Zero-one-zero,” says Turner. “Zero-one-zero” the helmsman repeats. A minute or two passes.
Bevegni, second in command of the vessel, is seated on the far right of the bridge, and his eyes are trained on the channel ahead. His eyes focus ahead so the captain can stay focused on the immediate. Earlier he had noticed a whale about a mile out and called attention to it. It wasn’t to highlight nature, although it certainly did that. It created awareness. Nobody wants to hit a whale, but there can also be a serious fine associated with it.
Bevegni wasn’t thinking about a career with the ferry when he was growing up in Juneau. At 19, he was planning a fun summer when he learned he had an interview with the ferry system. His mother had applied for him, perhaps to get him out of the house. It’s more than 26 years later for the chief mate, who started as a dishwasher and has most other jobs on the ships, and he has no regrets.
This time it’s a trawler he sees, again a mile out. It’s the job of the pilot, a member of the crew whose job is to ensure safe passage, walks to the marine radio and hails the vessel. It agrees to move aside.
“You’re still on 10,” Bevegni notes, a reference to the northerly heading. It’s a heavy ship that doesn’t respond quickly and when it does, it wants to keep going. It prompts Turner to make a five-degree adjustment, echoed by the helmsman. “Thank you, Lucas,” said Turner.
Chief Engineer Joel Beraldi, who leads a ten-person department that maintains the engines and other systems, arrives on the bridge and stands quietly for a minute.
“This is what separates the mates…from the other mates,” he offers, the pause generating a laugh. But he’s also serious. “It’s one thing to be able to go straight, it’s another thing what you guys do here.”
Someone notes that his job is every bit as challenging since he and his team ensure the 50-year old Columbia’s systems keep operating. Beraldi, who is regularly assigned to the Matanuska, wasn’t on board when Columbia had to cancel its schedule for a week in June. It was the engineering department that caught the issues and alerted the Coast Guard.
“The fire main system had rotted out, there were holes,” he said. “You can’t sail if there are issues with fire suppression.”
The crew is well aware of the problems associated with the ferry, but overall most of them say they love their jobs.
“There are other things besides bonuses,” offers Second Mate Dave Butler.
He also understands that it’s a different calculation for younger people today. They have other options. The problem with payroll has been vexing to them because it isn’t new.
“I don’t live paycheck to paycheck, but a lot of people do,” Butler said. One of the crew on board the Columbia hadn’t been paid in four weeks, and when she got off, she wasn’t coming back, he said. “I can understand that.”
Dave Turner, the captain, said retention is the core issue. “We’re finding mates consistently. It’s keeping them.”
Tourist, local, business and law enforcement travel
The bridge isn’t the only place on the Columbia offering stunning views. People all over the ship are watching it wind its way through the Wrangell Narrows. Southeast Alaska, in general, is drawing tens of thousands of tourists to the area every week for the same reason. The vast majority come on cruise ships, which are far too big to get into the Wrangell Narrows. The cruise ship experience marries a luxury cattle car concept with simpler itineraries.
Something different draws for the passengers on board the Columbia, many of them in sleeping bags and in tents. Geri Doherty, a retiree who splits time between Wyoming and Florida, had booked a two-bunk cabin on the Columbia months earlier. “I found out about the ferry a long time ago, maybe 35 years ago, and I knew I wanted to do it then,” she said. “I’m just getting to it, and I’m 70.” She said she likes the “retro” feel of the ship. It wasn’t about simply getting there for Doherty, or she would have taken a plane for about $200 one-way.
She also wasn’t stopped by the price, even with bargain fares available from cruise ships. “I don’t really care for cruise ships,” she offered. “This feels a lot more authentic.” The total cost for one passenger and a two-person cabin from Bellingham to Juneau was $886, with $420 of it for the cabin. The Columbia only offers two-bunk and four-bunk options.
For the average tourist who wants to see Alaska and isn’t tied to an itinerary there are compelling cruise ship offerings. It was possible to get a single inside cabin on a Norwegian cruise ship in mid-July for $486, albeit along a different path. An agent with VacationsToGo.com prepared a finalized trip ticket with an inside cabin for one traveler from Vancouver to Anchorage, which stopped in Juneau mid-trip.
It is a pineapple-to-apple comparison for numerous reasons, just one of which is the route. The Jones Act, the law that governs maritime commerce, limits the ability of passengers to disembark mid-trip short of an emergency or some kind of mistake. That means a cruise ship passenger couldn’t just get out in Juneau, even if they wanted. Also, the $466 passenger fare from Bellingham to Juneau on the Columbia didn’t include a cabin, or food or amenities offered on cruise ships.
But the obvious difference is also the point, according to various crew, who have had an inside vantage point to outside pressures on AMHS in recent years that it should somehow make more money. The stated mission of the ferry system doesn’t include making a profit. It’s to provide safe, reliable and efficient transportation — of people, vehicles and goods — to and from Southeast Alaska, and the Lower 48. Many of the ports it calls on have no other government-sponsored transportation system.
For people who live here
Many members of the crew working on the Columbia referred to the no-frills ferry as “the bus” while noting the things it offers that a cruise ship can’t. Ferry travelers can bring their pets. They can also bring vehicles, including RVs and boats. It provides the means for many people to move from one place to another for work. Mostly, it takes Alaskans home. And it’s gotten expensive to do that.
“I believe the ($466) price is too high,” said Tyler Green, chief steward on the Columbia. “Everyone should be able to afford the bus. The cars, the rooms, okay. But at least fill the bus up” with people who can afford it. Green has worked on the ferries for 14 years. This is his fourth as chief of the steward department.
Ship documents show that when it came to passengers, the ferry was undersold. There were 283 on board the trip from Bellingham to Ketchikan, where the Columbia can hold 499 passengers. Meanwhile, cabins and space for vehicles had been sold out for a month or more. The cost of a 15-foot vehicle from Bellingham to Ketchikan is $1,200.
Shandra and David Handley and their two teenagers, from Santa Cruz, California, were among the tourists who got on board in Bellingham on July 14. They planned the trip about three weeks earlier when there was “no chance of getting a cabin.” For them, the trip on the ferry kicked off to a longer visit to see family in Haines.
Their Alaskan clan, who fish for a living, know the region. They advised them on strategy in securing a good spot. As soon as they got on the Columbia in Bellingham, the Handleys staked out their claim topside. That included capturing a couple of lawn chairs just inside the solarium, which is the covered, heated area topside, and a primo tent spot a few feet away in the open on the deck. The space had filled up quickly.
“The kids were skeptical, but they are warming up to it,” said Shandra, a lawyer who works in the district attorney’s office. “Well one of them is, anyway,” she laughed, a nod to one of the teens reclining in the tent.
By the time rain appeared a day later — mercifully, for a brief spell — it still managed to seep in around the edges, the people living topside had become a team. As rain leaked in, they all shifted around, getting things secured, and helping others. Handley gave up his lawn chair to another traveler who needed to get her baggage off the ground to keep it dry.
While the Handleys’ trip continued past Ketchikan, there was a noticeable change in who boarded the ferry for the next passage to Wrangell. There were fewer people scattered about the ship in sleeping bags, fewer tents topside, and more locals among the 63 passengers and 24 vehicles that got on in Ketchikan. Crew pointed out anecdotally these vehicles included more trucks pulling fishing boats. It is also more affordable. A Ketchikan passenger can make the six-hour trip to Wrangell for $68, or continue on to Petersburg, a 3.5-hour trip, for $79. That’s less expensive than a flight.
At the ferry port in Sitka, a group of about 20 people were gathered in the parking lot, chatting away. Many in the group are assigned to the U.S. Coast Guard station, there to greet new arrivals. Lt. Cmdr. Mick Klakring was first assigned to Sitka from 2017 to 2020. He has been back about seven months, this time as the head of safety for the Coast Guard Advanced Helicopter Rescue School.
He called the ferry and the service it provides “critical.” It enables service members, many of whom regularly risk their lives to save others, to bring their vehicles — and their pets — which goes a long way in terms of quality of life.
• Contact Meredith Jordan at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (907) 615-3190.