Storm, steering problem hit Southeast ferry service

The ferry LeConte docks at Juneau’s Auke Bay terminal in 2010. Rough weather will keep it from sailing Jan. 9 to Haines. The ferry Columbia is also delayed through Jan. 11 because of a mechanical problem. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

Rough weather and a mechanical breakdown are affecting Alaska Marine Highway service in Southeast Alaska.

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Fifty-knot winds and high seas predicted for upper Lynn Canal will prevent the small ferry LeConte from making its Jan. 9 sailings between Juneau and Haines, part of its route.

Officials said it will resume scheduled sailings with a trip to Kake that night.

The ferry Columbia also is sailing a modified schedule through much of the week, because the system’s largest vessel was sidelined for much of Jan. 7 due to a mechanical problem.

Alaska Marine Highway spokeswoman Aurah Landau said the ship won’t skip any port calls.

“It’s running about 12 hours late. It will be on a modified schedule through Thursday,” she said. “It’ll resume its normal schedule with a northbound schedule leaving Bellingham on Friday.”

The Columbia sails weekly roundtrips from Bellingham, Washington, to Skagway.

It stops in Haines, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg, Wrangell and Ketchikan along the way.

The problem occurred as the Columbia sailed from Bellingham to Ketchikan. Landau said what’s called a steering-indicator rod stopped working.

“That’s the piece that when the wheel gives the command to the rudders to move, through the electrical system, tells the steering mechanism that the rudder has moved,” Landau said.

A technician had to fly into Ketchikan to make the repairs, she said. This problem took less than a day to fix, much faster than a previous breakdown.

The Columbia returned to service in late October after being sidelined for about a year after a propeller struck a submerged object.

Parts weren’t available and had to be built from scratch.

The Columbia carries about 500 passengers and more than 130 vehicles. It also has about 100 cabins.

The LeConte carries fewer than half as many passengers and about a quarter as many cars and trucks. It has no staterooms.

Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell.

He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues.

He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.

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