Alaska's ferries offer essential transportation

Posted: Monday, October 12, 2009

ABOARD THE M/V COLUMBIA -- Capt. John McMahon was tired mid morning on the second day of the voyage. He had been dragged out of bed after the fog rolled in. Visibility was down to two-tenths of a mile.

Most of the passengers woke to the guttural blare of the foghorn, sounding every two minutes. It was fishing season. That meant a lot of small boats in the water, and some might not have radar to tell them a 418-foot boat was headed their way.

Now awake, some of the voyagers rolled up their sleeping bags, walked out on deck and were greeted by a pod of orca whales off the port side.

Not an atypical morning when riding one of Alaska's floating public buses.

The Alaska Marine Highway System is the largest public transportation system in the state. These are not luxury liners serving the well-to-do looking for a lavish tourism experience.

Rather, Alaska's 11 ferries take all-comers and provide basic, affordable -- and for some residents, essential -- transportation to 31 of the state's coastal communities.

Even on the fleet's largest vessel, the Columbia, there are no high-class amenities, concierge service or fancy dress codes for dinner. For most, there's not even a bed to sleep in.

On a trip just before Labor Day, the ferry Columbia was filled with an eclectic group of passengers. There was the lady from New York who wanted to ride the ferry one last time before she passed away and the retired couple from Tennessee, off on whirlwind tour of the U.S.

There were military couples with young kids in tow, as well as the elder book author, the photographer and the emergency management technicians who like to go Outside for long motorcycle trips.

Crews took about three hours to get the rows of cars and moving vans onto the ferry. As they boarded, some passengers headed to the purser's station to get stateroom keys. The rest fanned out to lay claim to their floating campsites.

There are a few inside lounges. The more adventurous head to the outside solarium for covered, heated sleeping on lounge chairs. A few pitch tents on the stern's decks anchoring them down with lots of duct tape.

Chief Purser Lavena Sargent is in charge of handing out stateroom keys and answering passenger questions.

"I'm the first person people meet when they come to Alaska," she said. "I've probably met 300,000 people from all over the world, and every one has come to see where I live."

Sargent comes from a seafaring family. Her father worked with the U.S. Coast Guard, and wanted his daughter to attend the Coast Guard Academy.

She wanted to come to Alaska for a summer, and got hired in 1972 to clean rooms on the Alaska Marine Highway's Wickersham. At 20 years old, she was the youngest woman ever hired in the AMHS.

Later, she became the first woman to get a promotion in the system. But she had to fight for it.

Sargent applied for a bartender position on the Wickersham. She was told by a man in the administration, "There will never be a female bartender in the Alaska Marine Highway."

"I said that's discrimination. And he looked at me and said, 'What do you mean?' And that did it for me," Sargent said.

She went to the Equal Employment Office and got the job. Then she just worked her way up the ladder to better jobs.

At about 9 a.m., a purser announced that in an hour, the ferry would go through open seas for about two hours. Take the motion sickness medications now, he advised.

At lunchtime, the fog lifted, and the waters smoothed out as the ferry entered into a more protected area. A humpback whale breached the waters.

"There's a whale on the left side of the ship," McMahon announced on the loud speaker. "Betty from Tennessee, get on out there!"

Betty Ellis, a spunky retiree from Tennessee, raced out just in time to see the tail, but not in time to get a picture. She set out to get good shots of the lighthouses that dotted the Canadian coastlines, and got a good photo of one along the narrows through Bella Bella.

Down in the engine room, Chief Engineer Glen Scott had just come off standby. When the ship travels through the narrows or when at the docks, he and his crew stand ready to take over the ship in case something goes wrong with the bridge controls.

The Columbia generates its own electrical power through three diesel generators, each capable of delivering 845 kilowatts, enough to run this floating community that can hold more than 600 people. It has its own refrigeration and sewer systems, Scott said.

Everything is big down there. The two 6,000 horsepower engines have 17-inch pistons. The shafts that turn the propellers are as long as a 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Ville.

The ferry carries 250,000 gallons of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel. It takes about 20,000 gallons to run the Bellingham-Haines trip.

Scott and his crew have a host of high-tech equipment, but Scott has worked the job so long, he senses when something is off with his ship.

"You get used to the sounds, smells, the feel of it," he said. "You use all your senses down here. You feel for heat. We've got an infrared gun to test for heat, but when I started you touched the pipes with the back of your hands. If you smell diesel, you've got a leak."

If there is trouble, each crewmember is a trained merchant seaman, knows CPR and has basic fire fighting skills.

The buffet dinner on the second night aboard was packed. The menu featured pork chops, salmon Olympia, and cheese tortellini, all for $18.95.

Diners ate their fill and gazed out the windows at the scenic Canadian coastlines, perhaps just glad to be eating a good meal and have the roiling waves of the open seas behind them.

Travelers wake up on Day 3 in Alaska. First stop is Ketchikan. Cars and passengers roll off, others roll on.

Members of a girls volleyball team from Juneau boarded. The ferry is the main transportation link for high school sports teams traveling within the Southeast chain.

These ladies spent the morning on a sort of information scavenger hunt, quizzing fellow travelers and searching the ship to get a list of questions answered -- Define nefarious. What is xiphoid process? What is the latitude of Juneau, down to the minute?

A handful cornered Capt. McMahon to get some answers.

Originally from San Francisco, McMahon was 21 years old when he and his brother came to Alaska on the ferry in a Volkswagen van. Their first job was processing crab for storage. Four hours later they decided to look for something else.

McMahon got a job cooking on the ferry Malaspina for $5.50 an hour. He never even thought about working on a ship's bridge until his little brother Pete got his mate's license.

"I figured if he could do it, I could do it," McMahon said.

Over more than three decades, McMahon worked his way up from the galley, to watchman, helmsman and finally to captain.

He's had a few close calls over the years -- one stormy Thanksgiving Day birthing that nearly turned disastrous still makes him nervous working that holiday. But overall the job is gratifying, he said.

Like the burial at sea he presided over recently.

A couple came to the captain asking for help. Their son, who has special needs, had a service dog. The dog was old, and had been sick before the journey.

As bad luck would have it, the dog died during the trip. The family hoped a burial at sea would give the boy a chance to say goodbye.

"I worried is this legal? Can I do this?" McMahon said. "But my heart said this is a good thing to do for this family."

The crew zipped up the dog in a body bag, leaving its head out so the family could give it one last pat goodbye. Inside the bag they included a steel bar to make sure burial was swift and sure.

On the back deck, captain and a few crewmembers stood as honor guard as the family said a few words, gave the dog one last pat on the head and bid their goodbyes.

The crew tipped the stretcher and the package took the plunge.

But the dog's now slightly bloated remains stayed afloat a little longer. Everyone watched as the dog's bobbing head floated into the distance, then finally slipped beneath the water.

"That part was a little awkward," McMahon said. "But it was still the right thing to do."

Afterward, Purser Sargent drew up a death certificate for the family, listing the geographical position of the pet's burial.

After a brief stop in Wrangell, it's time to go through the narrows to Petersburg.

The Columbia is the largest vessel that navigates these tight waters. The ferry is 85 feet wide (about 28 yards). The Wrangell Narrows averages a half-mile in width. But some sections measure in at less than the length of a football field. The big cruise ships won't go near it.

They call this section "Pinball Alley." The ship must stay within a narrow path to avoid shallows.

The 418-foot-long ship winds its way through 42 sharp S-curves between the narrow shores for 21 miles. Buoys -- red on one side, green on the other -- mark the edges.

The mood is tense and focused in this stretch, as the ship slows from its usual 20-knot cruise speed to half that or less.

A lookout is posted outside on the forward bow. He can drop the anchor in a flash if a problem comes up.

Soon, the waters get wider, and little cabins dot the shores. Almost to Petersburg. The bridge can relax.

"I gotta pinch myself once in a while," he said. "I used to be the cook, and I just did the Narrows. I'm blessed," McMahon said.

A brief stop in Petersburg, and it's off to Juneau, arriving at 4:45 a.m. After a two-hour stay, the ferry heads to Haines, then Skagway.

As the ferry pulls up to port, departing passengers drop off their stateroom keys with the purser. Sargent pulls out maps and a highlighter, offering recommendations for places to visit or eat in town.

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