KETCHIKAN — A remarkable vessel in Alaska maritime history — some say legendary —was hunkered down at the Ketchikan Shipyard recently for an annual overhaul.
The Alaska Marine Highway System ferry Tustumena has served nearly a half-century in Alaska’s roughest waters, earning the nickname “Trusty Tusty” as it continues to be a welcome sight in its ports of call at Homer, Kodiak, Seldovia and on out the Aleutian Chain.
“I admire it greatly,” said Capt. William Hopkins of Ketchikan, a now-retired AMHS ferry captain who served aboard the Tustumena in several capacities over the years, beginning in 1973. “I believe it is an historic ship. ... I also call it the Legendary Tustumena, as it certainly is a legend in the area that it operates.”
One of its two current skippers, Capt. Keith Austin, provided a tour of the ferry to the Daily News as the overhaul work was being completed by Vigor Alaska and Tustumena crews.
For Southeast Alaskans familiar with the state’s mainline ferries such as the Malaspina and the smaller LeConte, the Tustumena is at once recognizable as an AMHS ferry — but it’s noticeably different.
The unique “king post” structure rising above the aft portion of the ferry is an obvious external cue. Inside, the Tustumena seems more compact, its passageways narrower, and its construction stronger than most of its fleetmates.
It feels stout, and it should. The Tustumena is as an open-ocean ship, a designation it shares with just one other AMHS ferry, the Kennicott.
Built in 1963 in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., the Tustumena was the state ferry system’s fourth vessel and was designed specifically with Southwest Alaska in mind.
Not only did the ship need to be strong because of that region’s demanding waterways and weather, it would have to accommodate a variety of docking situations that are quite unlike the standard ferry terminal ramps in Southeast Alaska.
“When you’re out there (in Southwest Alaska), you’re tying up to cannery and city-owned docks,” Hopkins said. “They don’t have bridge ramps like we have in Southeast.”
The Tustumena’s ability to load and unload vehicles at almost any dock is due to its vehicle elevator system. The aforementioned king-post structure is involved with raising and lowering vehicles by elevator between the dock and ferry’s car-deck level. A transfer bridge allows vehicles to move between the dock and the ferry’s elevator system, which can handle two cars or one van at a time.
Austin said the Tustumena’s offload and load process can take more than two hours, compared to as little as one-half hour at a Southeast Alaska terminal.
The current Tustumena is a longer ship than when it was first built.
Its hull was lengthened by 56 feet in 1969 to provide better handling in rough waters, according to AMHS information. Later, its superstructure was stretched forward by 22 feet.
The vessel expansions added vehicle and stateroom capacity, in addition to an enclosed sundeck, bow thrusters and larger generators.
At present, it can accommodate 174 passengers and 36 vehicles, according to AMHS. It has a forward observation lounge and a sit-down dining room. Its bar lounge is aptly named “The Pitch and Roll.”
What the Tustumena no longer has is its old upright piano once stationed near the lounge, and a set of original Western paintings by Walter Graham.
Still, the ship has an unmistakably rough-and-ready feel about it.
Said Hopkins: “It’s really courageous, and bold. If it had a personality, that’s how I would describe it.”
The Tustumena originally served just Kodiak, Homer and Prince William Sound out of Seward.
In 1979, the ferry began to operate farther west, pushing out the Aleutian Peninsula to False Pass, King Cove and Sand Point, according to AMHS information.
The decision to sail westward was encouraged by two of Tustumena’s captains, Richard Hofstad and Andy Santos, who Hopkins described as visionaries in that regard.
Even at that time, the navigational charts weren’t well established for the area.
“Charts in some areas were incomplete with large areas of water remaining blank and un-surveyed,” wrote Hopkins.
He credits Jack Johnson, who then served as the Tustumena’s chief mate, as having provided the knowledge about the safe-navigation “track lines” used by Tustumena on those pioneering voyages from his earlier days as a captain and crew member of mail boats that had served the area.
Now the westward runs reach all the way out to Dutch Harbor.
Hopkins joined the vessel crew as a third mate during the early 1980s, as AMHS continued to expand the Tustumena’s routes westward.
“It was a pretty exciting time and we were seeing a part of America, of Alaska, that very few Americans really get to see — the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands. So I liken that route today to the Orient Express and I still believe it’s one of the most exotic runs that the Alaska marine highway has.”
Hopkins would continue to work his way up to become captain of the Tustumena. It was a fitting position for a seaman who’d first sailed aboard the ship from Homer to Seldovia in 1970.
In 1973, Hopkins had a summer job as a bedroom steward, making up staterooms and cleaning up after seasick passengers. His father served aboard the ship, as did Hopkins’ brother.
“I spent my formative years on her, working up from third mate to captain,” Hopkins said. “It was a wonderful experience overall. I certainly have no regrets. It made me a better seaman — I know that — just by virtue of sailing on that ship. The weather is certainly rougher and meaner, and just tougher all the way around than what we experience down here.”
When Hopkins speaks of the weather he experienced aboard the Tustumena, it’s clear these are experiences that remain vivid in his memory.
He stresses that the summer season isn’t bad compared to the winter. But the winter can be very bad indeed
“The Tustumena, when it strikes out, it’s in the open ocean, and you feel that swell,” Hopkins said. “The ship is in motion constantly from the sea under it, and you can hear it, too, when that wind blows. It screams through the antennas and the rigging. You can hear it. You can feel it.”
He likened the winter sea there as “being on a sea of liquid nitrogen. It’s bitter cold, and sea smoke rising, and, of course, the waves, the sea. It’s almost like a mortal enemy, and there have been nights out there that I am so grateful that I am on a good ship that’s well-made.
He recounts how the Tustumena and its crew has been involved in numerous maritime rescues over time. Both Hopkins and Austin remarked about the enduring quality of the Tustumena crew members.
“The Tustumena has always been well staffed,” Hopkins said. “It’s not really easy duty. ... In the winter time, it’s pretty serious business.”
Austin, the current captain, would agree.
“We work pretty hard, but along with that though, there’s a sense of accomplishment and pride,” Austin said. “You really have to like the ship to work here.”
The state now is designing the ship that eventually will replace Tustumena in the open-ocean routes of the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Chain. The AMHS initial reconnaissance report on the Tustumena replacement design will be presented in May at community meetings in Homer, Kodiak and Unalaska.
Meanwhile, the Tustumena itself completed its overhaul period and departed Ketchikan for points northwest on April 18.
It’s not clear how long the replacement process will take. More than a few people will be saddened when the ship is finally retired from AMHS service.
“When that day comes, I’ll certainly feel like a member of the family has passed away,” Hopkins said.