Thirteen years after it was first conceived, the first Alaska Class ferry completed its maiden voyage up Lynn Canal. The concept and design has changed with different governors making it an odd duck in the fleet.
It’s early morning in Juneau and the 280-foot Tazlina is loading vehicles in the stern door.
Drivers are making a three-point turn inside the ferry so they’re pointed towards the rear of the ship.
Third Mate Joe Krzesni is directing the show.
“We find it’s generally better if they’re facing the right way because they’re more impatient offloading than they are loading,” he said.
The Tazlina was designed as a roll on/roll off ferry. But because the docks at Haines and Skagway were never upgraded cars and trucks will have to exit from the side doors.
So it’s like a game of Tetris inside making sure all the cars fit just right — and just like that classic video game — you have to leave room to maneuver.
It isn’t always easy. But Krzesni remains optimistic through it all.
“So far so good,” he said later that afternoon. “It’s nice that we have light loads for our first day to get everything figured out and dialed in.”
Lawmakers earmarked $120 million in 2010 and 2011 to build the Tazlina and its sister ship Hubbard.
There were no federal matching funds because instead of going out to bid, the $101 million contract went right to Vigor Alaska’s Ketchikan shipyard in 2014. Gov. Sean Parnell had rationalized the extra cost for the state because of job creation.
That’s allowed the state to place a giant “Made in Alaska” logo on its side. That appealed to passenger Joe Jacobson of Haines.
“It’s cool that it’s made in Ketchikan,” he said. “I think that is awesome for economic incentive for Alaska. That’s a lot of good jobs for people and it seems solid. It seems like after they get a few things tuned up it’ll work great.”
He had made the trip up from Juneau with his 6-year-old daughter, Yarona.
“Whenever we can take the ferry we take the ferry,” he said. “But sometimes the schedule doesn’t work out.”
Schedules have become sporadic in recent years due to cuts to the ferry system.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget would end service altogether. The House and Senate are negotiating a compromise budget that would inevitably reduce, but not eliminate ferry service.
But up on the Tazlina’s bridge these troubles seem far away. There’s a fantastic view of nothing but snowy peaks and green forestland.
Tony Karvelas is operations manager for the fleet. For him this day has been a long time coming.
“We’re very proud of all the work that went into it and all the effort and it’s nice to finally be under way on the maiden voyage,” Karvelas said. “It’s a very nice ship and we look forward to a bright future operating it up here on Lynn Canal.”
Karvelas has spent about a decade working with the marine highway. He’s seen this vessel’s design transform from a day boat to long haul ferry and back again.
Day boats have smaller crews and are cheaper to run. When Gov. Sean Parnell originally conceived day boats on Lynn Canal, they would go hand-in-hand with the Juneau Access road extension to make multiple daily trips possible.
That project was canceled by Gov. Bill Walker. In effect, the Tazlina was built for a route that only ever existed on paper.
Gov. Dunleavy’s administration has begun planning a seasonal terminal at Cascade Point to shorten travel distance in the spring and summer but it’s still in the concept stages.
The Tazlina is an austere vessel. The artwork hasn’t arrived yet. There’s no galley kitchen. Ship’s steward Tyler Green is a trained chef. But without so much as a toaster or kitchen sink his talents are limited to the microwave.
“This is more like a gas station’s pit stop, really,” Green said. “I mean, technically we’re a highway so you can kinda see it as a snack bar in a gas station that you’d see in a highway.”
That left Skagway-bound passenger Douglas Hofmann underwhelmed.
“They should improve their variety of their snacks,” Hofmann said. “But I’m spoiled. I live in Seattle where you get 12 different varieties of gluten-free, free-range, all-volunteer… toilet paper,” he quipped.
Nevertheless … Lynn Canal communities are excited to have a brand new ferry show up. In Haines, a women’s choir greeted the ship.
“We like to celebrate good things and we love the ferry system so our women’s choir group decided we were going to greet the ferry this morning,” Haines Borough Mayor Jan Hill said.
There wasn’t as much fanfare in Skagway. Two mammoth cruise ships were already in port – enough to keep most townspeople busy.
Bookshop owner – and former weekly newspaper owner – Jeff Brady said the Skagway community is glad to see the Tazlina in service. But he said people are anxious over further cuts.
“If we have it at least the service level that we have now we can survive on that,” Brady said. “But if we have cuts further than what we have now it’s going to be really tough around here.”
Cars and trucks from Skagway drive on board. Each one makes the three-point turn to get into position. Karvelas says the crew is getting into the rhythm now.
“It seems like for the first time it’s working pretty well,” Karvelas said.
The ship doubles back to Haines. About an hour and a half later it ties up and disgorges its last vehicles and passengers. The crew has reached its 12-hour limit since beginning its run from Juneau and will overnight in Haines.