State charters private catamaran for stranded travelers in Haines, Skagway and Juneau

Travelers wait to board the Allen Marine catamaran at the Haines small boat harbor. (Photo by Henry Leasia)

Wrangell High School basketball teams sailed up the Lynn Canal on Thursday to play a series of games against Haines. Coach Cody Angerman said the plan was to play Friday night and again on Saturday before heading back on the Alaska Marine Highway System.

“We actually would’ve been back in Wrangell Monday at 6 a.m. Obviously that plan is gone. Just trying to figure out something else at this point,” Angerman said.

AMHS cancelled sailings of the Matanuska this weekend to carry out engine repairs. It was the only ferry running the Lynn Canal. 

Wrangell’s players and coaches have been living out of a classroom at the Haines School for the past few days. Heavy snow has made it difficult to do anything but play ball. 

“We’ve had three practices in the last two days already,” Angerman said. “We’ve been giving them the speech of you know you’ve got an advantage being on this trip because you’ve got a lot of gym time anyway.”

Wrangell wasn’t the only stranded basketball team. Skagway’s basketball teams got stuck in Juneau after traveling for a series of games. They were among a number of Upper Lynn Canal residents stranded there over the weekend. 

When Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata heard the basketball team was stuck after two weeks of travel, he started making phone calls. He wasn’t the only one to call State Senator Jesse Kiehl over the weekend. So Kiehl reached out to the Department of Transportation.

“I don’t know that everyone understood the entirety of just how weathered in everyone was and just how many schoolkids and folks out in Juneau on medical really needed to get back,” Kiehl said.

Kiehl said once DOT heard the situation it quickly chartered a passenger-only catamaran with Juneau’s Allen Marine to make the Upper Lynn Canal run. There’s no playbook for private charters, so DOT worked with city managers and the senator to come up with a plan. Allen Marine crewed their vessel, but Alaska Marine Highway System was in charge of ticketing. Students were given priority. 

Kiehl said he’s pleased with the response, but he would like to treat the cause of the problem rather than the symptoms.

“The most critical thing is we have got to have a fleet of ferries. It’s just essential. In the past when this kind of thing has popped up we’ve got another ferry that can divert and fill in and it’s a little inconvenient but we all pitch in and help out and nobody is just flat stranded,” Kiehl said.

The Allen Marine catamaran picked up passengers from Juneau at noon on Monday. The packed ship arrived in Haines three hours later. 

It was raining and blowing wind on the docks when the boat arrived. Haines Mayor Jan Hill and the Haines Drama Debate and Forensics team got off along with the latest edition of the Chilkat Valley News. 

Haines resident Sara Chappell snagged a copy of the newspaper while she waited to board the boat bound for Juneau. 

“I feel pretty lucky to get the first newspaper delivered to Haines, and I feel doubly lucky that we just might make it to Juneau today!” Chappell said.

Wrangell’s basketball teams made it on the boat bound for Juneau. Coach Angerman said they will fly home from there. 

But Mayor Andrew Cremata said Skagway’s high school basketball team couldn’t make it home from Juneau. High winds on the Upper Lynn Canal were a game changer for the Panthers.

“The odds were extremely against them being able to get into Skagway. So we had to make a really difficult decision about 10 minutes before the boat was due to leave.”

Local businesses including White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad pledged financial support to keep the students well-fed and put up in hotels. The team has been on the road for two weeks and three days. They hope to catch a flight home on Tuesday before another storm comes in.