Alaska Marine Highway accepting bids for fleet’s fast ferries

A blue and white ferry travels through the water on a clear day with mountains in the background
The fast ferry M/V Fairweather steams through Chatham Strait in 2011. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska)

Reducing the size of the state’s ferry fleet was among the cost-saving recommendations from a work group looking to make the Alaska Marine Highway System more efficient. Now, the state is redoubling its efforts to sell its two fast ferries. The sleek blue and gold catamarans were brought into service about 15 years ago with great fanfare but had a rocky start.

A defect with their innovative, lightweight engines caused them to crack, leading to headaches right out of the gate. The state sued the manufacturer in 2010, and both ferries were eventually re-powered with conventional engines.

When they did work, the ferries were popular with passengers. That’s because the 235-foot vessels could cover distances twice as fast as the rest of the fleet — Juneau to Sitka only took about four hours

But the catamarans burned far more fuel than the conventional fleet and struggled in the notoriously rough wintertime conditions in Lynn Canal. So the Chenega was taken out of service in 2015.

The Fairweather went into lay-up last year, says DOT’s regional spokesman Sam Dapcevich.

Each catamaran is powered by four MTU 20V 4000 M73 engines that were installed about five years ago. (Photo by Alaska Department of Transportation)

“We determined that they were too expensive to operate with the high fuel usage complicated machinery and, you know, associated high maintenance costs,” Dapcevich told CoastAlaska.

But that cost-cutting had a price. The agency told lawmakers earlier this year that it’s paying $566,016 a year to moor both fast ferries in Ketchikan’s private Ward Cove facility.

The state tried last year to hire a broker to find buyers, but that didn’t go anywhere.

So DOT is trying something new. It’s accepting sealed bids for each ferry or for both as a package deal. According to filings, the agency has set a minimum reserve price for each ship, but it’s not saying how much that is until the bids are unsealed. Prospective buyers are required to post a refundable $25,000 deposit with each bid.

The public notice went out on Thursday, Oct. 15. And within 24 hours, Dapcevich says the phones started ringing.

“We’ve had some interest, and we are pursuing those leads,” he said on Friday.

The bids will be unsealed on Dec. 15 in a conference room at DOT’s Juneau headquarters. Until then, the agency is inviting prospective buyers to visit Ward Cove to inspect the two ferries.