Saturday, August 13, 2016

Alaska 2016 | Day 89 | Ketchikan

Chores this morning…a quick run to Wal-Mart, more grocery shopping, rinsing the salt off the boat.

In the afternoon we headed to the Vigor Shipyard, where two new Alaska Marine Highway vessels are under construction. These ships will be 280 feet long and are the first new ferries for the system in many years.

The Alaska Marine Highway is a pretty neat system, important because of Alaska’s geography. Alaska is huge—fully one fifth the size of the United States and two-and-a-half times the size of Texas. Huge swaths of the state, like almost all of southeast (including the capitol, Juneau) are accessible only by sea and air. The ferry system is thus like their highway system, hence the name. Residents depend on it to get from community to community.

The voyages that Alaska Marine Highway vessels undertake are challenging. They routinely cross the Gulf of Alaska and run the entire Inside Passage, from Juneau to Bellingham, WA.

Like most large publicly run transportation systems, the Alaska Marine Highway System is perpetually strapped for cash. According to some calculations, the system loses $1000 on every ticket it sells. Many of the ships are 40 years old or older, and replacement is overdue. The new ships are exciting for the state, and their construction has been a boon for Ketchikan (200 year-round jobs!).

Building ships in Ketchikan is challenging. Skilled labor is hard to find. The supply chain is slow—“we’re two weeks from anywhere,” explained one employee. Construction space is limited, and the climate is not conducive to working outdoors.
Huge bow thruster!
Bulbous bows for the two new ferries
Interior cross section 
All that said, the project, though still several years from completion is progressing on schedule and on budget. Walking around the shipyard I was struck by the scale of the ship. The bow thruster tunnel is large enough for a man to walk through and the sides of the ship stood more than six stories high, and the top deck hadn’t yet been added. More impressive is how tiny this ferry is compared to the cruise ships that visit Ketchikan. Many of those are in the 1000-foot range!

Thanks to Tom for arranging the tour, and the Vigor employees for taking time out of their day to show us around!

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