Lucrative Bellingham-to-Southeast ferry Columbia sailing canceled amid repairs

The ferry Columbia is tied up at the Ketchikan Shipyard in February, 2012.
The ferry Columbia is tied up at the Ketchikan Shipyard in February, 2012. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

The Alaska Marine Highway cancelled this week’s sailing of the state ferry Columbia. Repairs are underway following damage discovered after docking in Bellingham, Washington, last Friday.

The 418-foot ship was evacuated of passengers and crew Friday morning after black smoke was discovered in the bow thruster room.

“Investigation found that the vessel had mechanical damage to the turbo charger and the engine exhaust system and the black smoke was exhaust that had back flowed into the system,” said Aurah Landau, spokesperson for the ferry system.

The ferry system has a spare turbo charger to replace the damaged one but other parts had to be flown in for repairs.

Terminal agents in Auke Bay and Skagway on Friday and Saturday contacted passengers booked to ride the ferry out of Bellingham. About 300 people had booked tickets and it was to carry a nearly full load of vehicles. Laundau said some of the passengers booked for later trips. Others canceled.

“It’s over a holiday week,” Landau said. “It was a very heavy load of passengers and cars and it is such a shame that the mechanical issue happened and there’s impact on the passengers.”

The canceled sailing also means lost revenue to the Marine Highway System during its peak season, although no word yet on how much. The Bellingham-to-Southeast Alaska route in the summer is a moneymaker for the state ferries.

Landau said repairs on the damaged equipment are turning out to be challenging. Ferry officials hope to know by the middle of this week whether the ship will be able to sail north from Bellingham on Friday, July 6. They’ll be contacting passengers if that isn’t the case.

The Columbia was out for repairs following a mechanical problem in January. It returned to service last fall after being sidelined for nearly a year as the Marine Highway worked to repair a damaged propeller.

Two years ago, passengers were stranded in Petersburg in the middle of summer because of engine problems. Other problems with its exhaust system and propeller damage also ended the summer season early for the vessel in 2015. It underwent a major overhaul for new engines and propellers in 2013.

It suffered generator fires in 2008, 2006, 2003 and 2000. A turbo charger problem also left the Columbia without the use of one of its engines in 2007. The ferry is 45-years old.

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