Southeast communities scramble as ferries LeConte, Aurora head to dry dock

The MV LeConte, an Alaska state ferry, sits at the dock in the Southeast village of Angoon on Thursday, March 28, 2019. (Photo by Nat Herz / Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The Alaska Marine Highway System confirms that its bare-bones winter schedule just got even leaner. Four Southeast communities have been cut off with virtually no notice, stranding passengers and vehicles.

State officials blame the mounting cost of repairs needed for one of its workhorse vessels.

The Alaska Marine Highway’s LeConte has been taken out of service. State officials say wasted steel in the 46-year-old vessel would cost $4 million more than it had budgeted for.

It’s poor timing: The LeConte’s sister ship Aurora is due to be brought into Ketchikan’s shipyard on Monday, Nov. 4 leaving few options to pick up the slack.

Alaska Marine Highway System spokesman Sam Dapcevich says connections in the northern panhandles are effectively severed or reduced.

“Service to Angoon, Tenakee (Springs), Pelican and Gustavus will be stopped,” he told CoastAlaska on Friday. “Haines and Skagway will receive service once per week and Hoonah will receive service twice per month.”

It’s not clear how long the service gaps will be. Repair estimates for the Aurora aren’t expected until November 15. At that point the state says it’ll investigate repairing one of the two ferries — but not both.

In the meantime, travelers are effectively stranded — on short notice.

“We have been changed six times since last May,” Gustavus resident Bruce Tedtsen said by cell phone from Nevada. He says he recognized the number of the Marine Highway’s reservation line when he got the call late Thursday.

“Which is like getting a call that a relative died,” he quipped, “because I’ve got so many of them this summer; I just know what it is when it rings and I see that number up there.”

He and his wife can eventually fly home to Gustavus — their Chevy truck can’t. 

“Our vehicle could be potentially laid up in Juneau for at least six months,” he said. “Because they’re going to be doing some dock work in March, April and May.”

That means there are no ferries to or from Gustavus for the foreseeable future. And this couple’s situation isn’t unique. Residents of Angoon, Tenakee Springs, and Pelican alson are stranded, though state officials didn’t immediately say how many.

The state does have two brand new Alaska Class Ferries it built for $120 million in Ketchikan. Neither the ferries Tazlina or Hubbard are currently on the schedule because they’re due to have side doors added this winter.

But even if the new boats were ready, ferry spokesman Dapcevich says they couldn’t substitute for  the Aurora or LeConte any time soon: he says they can’t tie up to Angoon, Tenakee Springs or Pelican’s smaller docks.

“But right now we’re still trying to get some answers on if the Tazlina would be available to fill in,” he said.

That leaves few alternatives. The fast ferries have been stripped of fixtures as the state preps them for sale. And the larger mainliners also can’t access tie up to the smaller docks, either.

Flying often is not an option, especially in winter: Angoon, Tenakee Springs and Pelican are only accessible by floatplane. And none of these Southeast communities have barge service. That means the cost of freighting in groceries is expected to skyrocket as food will have to be flown in.

State lawmakers from across Alaska will take notice of the disruption to service — they’ll have to. An email to legislators that went out Friday says sailings to the capital Juneau for the January legislative session will be limited. The email asks legislators to kindly drop their vehicles off at a secure location in Haines — two weeks in advance.

Correction: State officials say repair estimates for the ferry LeConte came in $4 million over budget, not $2.8 million as previously reportedThis story has been updated.