This is part of the first segment of a two-part series about the tricky navigation facing the Alaska Marine Highway System.
The Alaska Marine Highway System has been in the news a lot for the challenges it faces, particularly in hiring and retaining more licensed officers. What about the crew it already has, a group of roughly 450 people? Who are they, and what do they think about their jobs?
Here’s a look at a handful of the mariners working on the Columbia in July.
Dave Turner, captain
Capt. Dave Turner, who has worked on ships for 40 years, admits that working for the Alaska Marine Highway System isn’t his favorite job. That has to be 11 years he spent in Hawaii with American Classic Voyages, a cruise ship company.
That was on the famed Independence, an ocean liner that sailed under ACL sister brand, American Hawaii. “It paid better, but the company went out of business in October 2001, shortly after 9/11,” he says. The location was great, but the real reason he loved it? “That was such a cool ship.”
But AMHS “is right up there” in the second spot, says Turner, 61.
“This is a great place,” he offers in the silence that is a two-minute gap between a cadet’s sounding of the fog horn one day out of Bellingham. “The schedule is awesome and…” he pauses for effect, since others on the bridge can hear him, “the people are okay.” It prompts a good laugh.
Turner, who has been with AMHS for 14 years, has worked on all types of boats and ships. It’s the kind of experience that earns the respect of the crew. His personality, a mix of crusty captain storyteller and outspoken supporter of crew, is why the crew likes him, says Lucas Bevegni, second mate on the Columbia. “Dave’s a really good captain. He’s always learning, and that’s important out here.”
He’s also a funny guy who doesn’t mind taking some ribbing from the crew. One of Turner’s observations was that working on lobster boats was easier than working on fishing boats, which few of the West Coast-based bridge crew could contest.
It also revealed that he grew up in Massachusetts, although lobster boats weren’t what led him to a maritime career. “I was a lousy high school student,” he admits. One day he was “sitting out of the parking lot thinking about skipping school” when he saw a friend headed in the opposite direction. “He said, I’m going to go see a guy about mass maritime, ships and stuff. Come along.’ It sounded exciting.” Things changed from there.
“I did get the Propeller Club most improved student award,” Turner says.
He worked on different ships in the years between leaving the Independence and coming to work for AMHS, which turned out to be permanent. His first ferry system bid — the process where a qualified mariner submits a registration card for an opening — was to be a second mate.
Turner recalled the early years with AMHS with some relish. “Back then they used to let you dead-head,” he says. “I bought a tent and set up in a good spot in the back on the van deck where I wouldn’t get rained on.”
He spent a long stretch as Southeast relief master, a job that sent him to all the different ships. Eventually he wanted a regular assignment, which is captain of the Kennicott.
Lucas Bevegni, chief mate
Lucas Bevegni has been with the ferry system for 26 years. He began in the steward department and his current assignment is second mate on the Columbia, he’s second in command, after the captain. He’s often the officer on the wing of the bridge parking the ship when it comes into port.
Bevegni says he had “many different jobs,” over the course of working his way up, often with one leading to the next before he was technically ready.
For instance, he had a job in the gally when an accident felled the chief cook, and ended up with a chance at the job, largely because they didn’t have another option.
“Then they realized I could cook,” and they left him in place. “I really enjoyed it,” he says.
But he wanted to work in the deck department and eventually he was alerted to a short-term job as watchman. The position requires being the eyes and ears of the ship, touring the vessel every hour to check various systems. The downside was that he had to make a four-month commitment, which was how long the person who had the job was going to be gone. Bevegni agreed despite the lousy timing. He left in the summer and came back in winter.
But it gave him seniority points he needed. It was a combination of strategy and luck that got him a job as watchman on the Malaspina.
Word on the dock that year was that they were going to get rid of Malaspina, which made people want to look elsewhere.
“Normally you‘d need 100 points to even consider bidding the job,” recalls Bevegni, who had less than half that many points. He decided to take a shot, wagering there would be little competition, and he was right. “And they didn’t get rid of Malaspina!”
Back when Bevegni did the job, each station had a key that had to be turned, which showed it had been checked.
“Now it’s a wand and all electronic,” he says, but it’s just as important. “They know there’s a fire before anyone else.”
Ann Griswold, ordinary seaman
Ann Griswold has worked for the ferry system since 2009. The first eight years were in the steward department, then she changed to the deck department. “I was deck watchman for several years before I went OS,” she says, or ordinary seaman.
In Bellingham she was in front of the row of vehicles waiting to drive on, radio in hand, listening to the bosun.
“The bosun figures out where he wants the cars, I figure out the order,” she explains later. She prefers to be out on the lot, rather than on the car deck. The downside is in the winter. “It can get really cold, so you have to bring a lot of clothes with you to make sure you’re ready for whatever Southeast Alaska is going to throw at us.”
In addition to duties helping to load and offload vehicles in different ports, she regularly took a turn at the helm, and served as lookout on the forward deck. “It’s a pretty diverse position.”
Griswold, 62, came to Alaska 20 years ago, after raising her kids in Vermont. She worked for Allen Marine for a while as a naturalist. “It was a really fun gig, but summers are all work, and no play.” The ferry provided more consistency. She plans to stay until she retires, probably at 65.
She likes the job and the schedule, which is two weeks on and two weeks off. “You work 168 hours, plus, in that two weeks. But having two weeks off — you can do a lot with that.”
But the job isn’t everything. “I work to live, rather than live to work.”
In the meantime, it suits her. There are highlights to every trip, like being able to wave to her boyfriend when the ship was docked in Sitka. He was on his fishing boat.
“I almost never work this ship,” she says, explaining that she is regularly assigned to the Kennecott. “You go where dispatch needs you.”
Amber Geil, steward department
“I think this is a wonderful job, especially with me living in Ketchikan,” says Amber Geil, a steward on the Columbia, which is homeported in Ketchikan. “I see orcas all the time, humpback whales, beautiful sunsets — unless I’m inside making up cabins.”
In addition to turning around the bunk bed staterooms, Geil was seen ringing up customers in the dining room and tending bar. “We all take on multiple jobs,” she says.
Geil, 41, says she was hired as part of a $5,000 incentive program, which required that she stay two years. The ad was timely for her, because her kids were old enough that she no longer felt tied to the house. She likes the job enough that she has a new goal — to stay at least five years. That’s the vesting period for employees to take money back out of the retirement system without penalty.
Geil acknowledged the abundance of other good-paying jobs in Southeast Alaska, particularly in the tourist industry.
“Even the crossing guards get paid quite a bit to hold a sign, maybe $22 an hour,” she says. “Those are lucrative jobs for young people, but there’s no health care.”
The ferry jobs are year-round, with benefits. Being able to shop in Bellingham, which she had recently, was a bonus. “If you stay in Alaska for a long time, you get island fever, and this is a free opportunity to get out of town, see some sites.”
Charlene Wolfe, steward
Charlene Wolfe worked for the ferry system from 2002 to 2010, when she was sidelined by an injury. She finally made it back in March and has been on the Columbia since April.
“I love working with people, and visiting with people, whether it’s the officers and crew or passengers,” says Wolfe, 73, who was working the crew mess and the officer in July, along with other steward department duties. “I like going back and forth between the two.”
Wolfe has done a lot of things over the years, including attending the state trooper academy. She had one month to go when she was “dispatched to Anchorage. I went home and got married instead.”
Home is Craig, where she’s lived all her life. Wolfe described herself as “Haida, Tlingit and Hawaiian — in that order.” She worked as the village public safety officer for about seven years. She served as a tribal court judge. She also took care of her grandfather, who lived to be 103, and then her mom.
The ferry is a different kind of job.
“We come on at 4:30 in the morning and work to 1:30 in the afternoon,” Wolfe says. “Then we get a three-hour break and come back 4:30 to 7:30.”
It’s early morning, but the routine sets in quickly.
“We have to prep all our fruits for the morning, lots of prep,” Wolfe says. Then it’s about making sure everyone gets fed. “I take orders, fill them, keep the place clean, change all the table clothes, whatever is needed.” Toward the end of her shift she takes more orders, “night lunches,” for the crew going on duty.
Wolfe says she is blessed with a lot of energy. “One of the things I like about here is that if they are too busy upstairs, I will help bus tables,” she says. “I am a real fast busser, two to three tables to their one. So I always get called up there — and it’s all overtime.”
• Contact Meredith Jordan at email@example.com or at (907) 615-3190.