Tustumena return delayed until July
The state ferry Tustumena will miss the first trips of the season, and is now scheduled to return to Aleutian chain service on July 18, when Akutan will finally get some relief from the helicopter ride to the airport.
"The Tustumena will remain at the Vigor Ketchikan Shipyard longer than previously expected. The Tustumena delay is due to the discovery, and necessary repair, of additional extensive steel wastage in the engine room," the Alaska Marine Highway System announced last week.
In Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, the final stop on the two-day trip from Homer, Mayor Frank Kelty said Tuesday there's a "slim chance" that a replacement vessel will fill in for the delays that will likely result in three canceled voyages.
"It's still on the table a little bit, but it doesn't look good," he said.
In Akutan, villagers see the ferry as a much more economical way to spend a day in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor some 40 miles away, for a fraction of the cost of flying on a helicopter and small plane.
April Pelkey of the Akutan Corporation said roundtrip ferry fare is about $65, compared to $400 by air. That's $100 each way for the helicopter ride from the village to the 5-year-old airport on Akun Island, and another $100 one-way to fly on Grant Aviation, she said.
Not everybody likes the helicopter trip, Pelkey said.
Village elders had to reschedule Anchorage medical trips, after making plans for the Tustumena, expressly to avoid the helicopter. The no-chopper route involved taking the ferry to Unalaska, and then flying the 800-mile trip to Anchorage on Pen Air's Saab 2000. Then, they'd time their trip home to coincide with the arrival of the ferry, which would deliver them from the Unalaska Marine Center to the dock in Akutan, she said.
Pelkey said that not only is the helicopter unpopular, but so are the small planes. Yet until 2012, when the village's first airport on land opened across the bay, Akutan was served by Pen Air's 1940s little vintage amphibious Grumman Goose. The Goose would fly directly from Unalaska to Akutan, and land on the water in front of the village.
"I trusted the Goose more than the Saab, because it landed on water," Pelkey said.
The boat ride to Unalaska gives Akutan residents a chance to get out of town for a day, and go shopping for fresh produce and other items, often with a rented car, said village resident Rachelle Tcheripanoff.
"Nobody has cars over here, and you can't bring an ATV to Dutch," she said. All terrain vehicles are not allowed on local streets in Unalaska.
In an impact involving commercial fishing, Kelty said Sand Point is now scrambling to find alternative transportation for seine nets for the June salmon fishery, and may end up sending fishing vessels to Homer to get the gear.
AMHS says repair plans developed in conjunction with the United States Coast Guard will ensure the vessel is safe before service is resumed. It is anticipated that the Tustumena will return to service departing Homer at 5 p.m. July 18. Originally scheduled to return to service on May 27, the Tustumena delay impacts communities in Southwest Alaska and along the Aleutian chain. The Tustumena went in for a scheduled annual overhaul on March 13. The Tustumena is 53 years old. A replacement vessel has been designed but is awaiting funding through the pending fiscal year 2018 capital budget. AMHS staff is contacting affected passengers. For more information, please call your local terminal or the AMHS central reservations office at 1-907-465-3941 or toll free at 1-800-642-0066. An updated schedule will be made available online at FerryAlaska.com, according to AMHS.