State Lacks Plans, Funds to Replace Steel Float in Gustavus

The million dollar steel float in Gustavus was less than two years old when a storm ripped it from its piling in January.

Seven months later, the state still doesn’t know what caused the failure and doesn’t have funds to replace it.

Without the steel float, Gustavus boaters are left with 350 feet of timber floats. In the winter, these are stored up the Salmon River. (Photo by Tod Sebens)


When the state installed the all-weather float in the fall of 2012, the purpose was to provide additional moorage opportunity for Gustavus boaters in the summer. The plan was to keep it in the water during the winter even though it wouldn’t be used then.

Kirk Miller supervises marine design in Southeast for the Alaska Department of Transportation. He says the 200-foot float was built to be easily removed from its piles.

“We knew from day one that this environment out here might not allow this float to survive,” Miller says.

He says his design team is very familiar with the severe storm weather at the Gustavus harbor facility. It’s in an exposed section of land that gets strong winds blowing from the west.

“The intent was to watch this closely and if it looked like we were going to have issues, we would unbolt this thing and put it up the Salmon River where we did the rest of the floats every year,” Miller says.

A storm in mid-December damaged five of the ten steel piles holding the float in place.

“After that first storm, we should’ve been out there unbolting it ourselves,” he says.

When the steel float dislodged in January, it swung into the timber floats, destroying two sections. The state paid $32,000 to replace them. (Photo courtesy of Pep Scott)

But the state didn’t move fast enough.

“While we were formulating a plan to replace the piles, the next storm came up. I wish we would’ve taken it out, but we didn’t,” Miller says.

He admits that was a mistake, but says the design of the float and the piling holding it in place was not.

Miller says DOT has done a lot of analysis since the January storm.

“We’ve also analyzed our original design calculations and we’ve determined that the loads of those two storms in December and January that were imposed on those piles were higher than we originally anticipated,” he says.

Data from a state weather gage at the harbor facility and statistical models have led Miller to believe waves were as high as 10 to 12 feet.

Still, he says, the piles should’ve survived.

“We still do not have a firm grasp on the actual failure mechanism,” Miller says.

The steel float was salvaged and is now anchored across Icy Passage near Pleasant Island. Miller says it’s in relatively good shape. The remains of the steel piles were removed

Without the steel float, commercial and recreational boaters have been sharing 350 feet of timber floats in the Gustavus harbor. The state paid about $30,000 to rebuild two timber sections that had been destroyed in the January storm. Those were just replaced in mid-July.

Gustavus tour operator Tod Sebens says without the steel float, space is tight.

“You really have to get in, get your people and get out,” he says.

Sebens runs a 50-foot whale watching boat, the TAZ, which can carry up to 28 passengers. He offers two trips daily.

“People have actually been working well together – the charter fishermen, some of the commercial fishermen and some of the individual tour operators, like myself. Everybody’s been really considerate this year,” Sebens says.

Mayor Sandi Marchbanks says Gustavus residents and business owners are used to making do with what’s available. But, she says, the town does need the steel float and hopes the state will replace it as soon as possible.

Miller says the state doesn’t have the funding to do that.

“It is our hope to bring that float back to the harbor, but nothing is certain,” he says.

The state does have close to $4.5 million in federal aid for a different Gustavus project. Miller says the state plans to replace the floating transfer bridge in the Alaska Marine Highway facility with a cable lift system.

“We may incorporate some elements to that steel float back into that project. But we don’t know if the federal government will participate in that, because they paid for it once and it broke loose and I don’t know if they’ll participate again,” Miller says.

If DOT does reinstate the steel float in Gustavus, it would be in a seasonal capacity only. Like the other harbor floats, it would have to be kept in the Salmon River during the winter and returned in the summer.