The community of Skagway in northern Southeast remains cut off from ferry service as the state works to figure out why the dock sank late last week.
The state Department of Transportation contracted with Western Marine Construction to begin salvaging and repairing the state-owned Skagway ferry dock.
The company moved two barges to the town over the weekend and plan on trying to refloat the dock on Tuesday or Wednesday. However, the dock will likely need repairs before it can start having Alaska Marine Highway ferries tie up to it again, according to state DOT spokesperson Jeremy Woodrow.
“We’ll know a lot more once we get the dock floated again be able to access the damage and then we’ll be able to devise a plan from there,” Woodrow said.
Why the dock sank is still unknown, although Skagway Mayor Mark Schaefer says there is a working theory having to do with the potable water supply to the dock. The system consists of a 3-inch pipe running from the terminal to the dock, and part way underneath, making it easy for state ferries to resupply with water. Schaefer says the entire Skagway community averages 300,000 gallons of water from the municipal supply in a 24 hour period. But between Wednesday evening and Thursday morning when the ferry dock sank, Schaefer says the city registered 800,000 gallons of water use. That leads city officials to think the potable water pipe may have burst under the dock, filling the floats and causing it to sink.
“Essentially we think we flooded the float and sank it that way, but we’re not sure yet,” Schaefer said. “We know we used a whole bunch of water and it’s not bubbling up in the street somewhere. It’s a significant amount of water.”
The dock is a 120 by 160 foot platform that sits on 24 hollow concrete chambers that float the structure. Mayor Schaefer compares the floating mechanism to a concrete ice cube tray. The potable water line runs through several of those compartments, hence the theory about the burst pipe flooding the floats, he says.
Woodrow says the state is aware of theory Schaefer describes, but the state isn’t ready to say that is the official cause of the dock sinking.
“We’re investigating all theories and possibilities at this point,” Woodrow said.
The state was able to bypass a bidding process for the dock salvage and established a sole source contract with Western Marine because of the urgency of the situation, Woodrow says. The cost of the operation and repairs is not yet known.
The state has suspended ferry service to the town until at least May 9. Woodrow says none of the Skagway cruise ship docks or the small boat harbor are able to accommodate state ferries and vehicle and passenger traffic.
There are two passenger ferry services based in Haines although neither usually starts operation until May. Both dock in the Skagway boat harbor. One of those companies, the Fjordland, has tentatively scheduled service between Haines and Skagway on days the state ferry sails the Lynn Canal. Owner Alison Jacobson says the company needs at least a dozen or more passengers to break even for fuel and crew costs. But she said the state should look at providing chartered ferry service during this time because many travelers cannot fly to Skagway. Jacobson said school groups use the ferry to keep travel costs down and some travelers have oversized luggage, like one person she talked to who is trying to transport a canoe to Skagway.
“This guy has a canoe and it weighs 120 pounds and he’s about to paddle himself there himself, with all his gear,” Jacobson said. “ It’s all complicated stuff, you can’t fly all these people.”
“It’s why the ferry is unique – it takes all kinds of walks of life. And there are all kinds of different circumstances.”
Jacobson said late Monday, she heard the canoeist was indeed headed to Skagway on his own.
Alaska Seaplanes and Air Excursions have also added flights to Skagway while ferry service is suspended.