Bivouacked in staterooms, stranded ferry passengers are prisoners of state’s hospitality

The ferry Matanuska on Jan. 31, 2020 in Auke Bay ferry terminal. It was to be the sole vessel servicing Southeast Alaska until it broke down nearly a week ago. (Photos by Jacob Resneck/CoastAlaska)

When the last of the Alaska Marine Highway System mainliners broke down in Juneau at the end of January, the state chartered a private catamaran to get most of the Matanuska’s passengers to their destinations.

But more than two dozen people with cars and trucks remained stranded.

The Matanuska hasn’t moved since Jan. 26 and is not likely to get underway until March. That’s because serious mechanical problems forced the ferry to cancel the rest of its sailings in January and February.

The Department of Transportation chartered a boat for most of the passengers to finish their journey the next day.

But five days later, there were still more than two dozen on board as the ship sat in Juneau’s Auke Bay.

“All the walk-ons split,” said ferry passenger Rex Lauber on Friday.

Lauber is trying to finish his journey from Ketchikan, where he grew up, to Palmer where he now lives. He’s got a vehicle, so the chartered Allen Marine boat was no use to him. He has nothing but time while the ferry is being repaired in Auke Bay.

“They’re feeding us, we have state rooms. The crew is going out of their way to make life as pleasant as they can. I got no problem with the crew,” Lauber said.

He said he was less impressed with shoreside management for relying on a single ship to hold up the ferry system.

Clark Posey is the ferry’s boatswain. State officials wouldn’t allow CoastAlaska to board the ship, but Lauber and Posey were happy to talk about the state of the ferry system.

“If you only have one vessel running and something happens, there’s no backup,” Posey said. “We don’t even have anything in reserves. Everything is down and out in the shipyard or laid up permanently in Ward Cove and so here we are waiting to fix the only boat that’s doing the mainliner run.”

The Matanuska’s sister ship, the Malaspina, is in cold layup. It’s been stripped, meaning it’s not likely to return to service in Alaska. The others are being overhauled. Except the Aurora — it’s unclear what the state intends to do with that one.

Posey is a 15-year veteran of the Alaska Marine Highway System. He said cuts to service and now these constant breakdowns show how vital ferry service is to coastal communities.

The Dunleavy administration recently released its $250,000 ferry study that concluded privatizing the system would not be feasible.

The governor is now putting together a working group to advise him. He asked the Legislature for one lawmaker from a ferry community and one from a community not directly served by the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Legislative leaders defied this request and nominated Kodiak House Republican Louise Stutes and Sitka Senate Republican Bert Stedman — both staunch ferry supporters from coastal towns.

“While Gov. Dunleavy recommended the appointment of one AMHS legislator and one non-AMHS legislator to the Alaska Marine Highway Working Group, he also recognizes that Sen. Stedman and Rep. Stutes have tremendous knowledge of the marine highway system,” said Jeff Turner, the governor’s spokesman, on Friday. “The governor looks forward to their participation in the working group.”

Posey has been sailing with the Marine Highway for 15 years. He said adding crew quarters to the fleet’s two new ships would allow them to fill-in in times like these.

“Honestly, I’m hoping that the two new Alaska Class Ferries, the Hubbard and the Tazlina, get set up to run as 24-hour boats,” he said. “Right now, they’re day boats only, and they’re limited on what they can cover.”

Lauber — the marooned ferry passenger — said he was disappointed his state representatives in the Mat-Su recently voted against overriding the governor’s vetoes that included an extra $5 million in ferry funding.

“Heads need to roll,” Lauber said. “And I was supporting the governor until this happened. I think he lost my vote over this.”

In the meantime, there is one other option for people in Lauber’s position — a barge to Haines. But it would take his vehicle five days to get there. Meanwhile, he’d have to fly. That option would be both slow and expensive, the retired 71-year-old said.

“They want us to pay for the barge and the airfare,” he said. “And, you know, I got my meals, I got a warm bunk.”

Until the ferry gets underway, he and about two dozen others are prisoners of the state’s hospitality in the Auke Bay ferry terminal.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that the state chartered one — not two — private catamarans to ferry stranded passengers on Upper Lynn Canal.

This story has been updated.


Jacob Resneck, CoastAlaska

Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director based in Juneau. CoastAlaska is our partner in Southeast Alaska. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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