After years of bad luck, Southeast Alaska tour operator is reviving a small ferry

Owner Eric Yancey added the Rainforest Islander to his fleet. Two Breakaway jet boats assist in the Islander’s first test run in years. (Photo by June Leffler/KSTK)

A small, defunct ferry is back in service in Southeast Alaska, this time under private ownership.

The Rainforest Islander ferry once connected Wrangell, Coffman Cove and Mitkof Island near Petersburg. A veteran tour operator in Wrangell hopes to turnaround a ship that’s had years of bad luck.

In 2015, remote Southeast Alaskans were hopeful that the Rainforest Islander would connect small Southeast towns. The Coffman Cove-based North End Ferry Authority planned to sail the ship four times a week between Prince of Wales Island, Petersburg and Wrangell.

But with constant delays and mechanical issues, the ferry was shortly out of service. The ship had a major crack, so it went to Wrangell’s boatyard where it sat for three years.

But last March, the vessel moved out of the yard and was back in the water.

“Everybody has a weakness, buying boats is mine,” said Eric Yancey. He owns Breakaway Adventures, a 30-year-running tour company based in Wrangell. His crew takes tourists for sightseeing trips, to nearby glaciers and up the Stikine River. And in the winter he keeps himself busy transporting high school basketball teams through Southeast.

Yancey looked across the bottom deck of the 65-foot converted landing craft. There’s just open space, where Yancey would transport freight and vehicles.

“I’m guessing four or five cars,” he said. “Three, four, maybe trucks at one time.”

Upstairs is the passenger seating and viewing area. It can hold 30 passengers and crew.

Unlike his jet boats, the Rainforest Islander can move large freight, including vehicles and boat trailers. With ferry schedule cuts, he saw the need for that kind of transport.

“So there’s just these folks that have vehicles strung out throughout Southeast Alaska, wanting to get them home or get them to where they need to be,” Yancey says.

Brian Wilson is a businessman and council member in Coffman Cove. Wilson knows Yancey’s work well, especially getting school athletes to towns safely.

“I think he’s a great guy and he knows the water, I’m hoping he can make this work,” Wilson says.

He also sits on the board for another community effort to provide ferry service to Prince of Wales, the Inter-Island Ferry Authority. That authority offered the connection to Coffman Cove, Wrangell and South Mitkof over a decade ago. He says freight costs for his town have increased considerably over time. If Yancey can offset that, he thinks it would be great for the whole region.

“I can see a very good niche there, if he can hold on and stick it out and show that he’s serious about it,” Wilson says.

Work is already there for the new owner. Yancey’s hauling vehicles and equipment for the U.S. Forest Service to a nearby island, for its fieldwork.

He hopes to service the same towns on the inside passage the ferry was originally intended for. He doesn’t have a set schedule of sailings yet. But being a private owner, he can adjust that according to demand.

But the ship’s history of bad luck is rearing its head. He’s spent a lot of money on repairs and alterations, granted, with no unforeseen mechanical issues. But clearly, he chose an inopportune time to make such an investment.

“I felt like no risk until this coronavirus showed up, but unfortunately we were eye deep into it by the time that started to happen,” Yancey said.

He said last year, it felt like the right move, an exciting one. But now, it will be months or more before he knows if it was really worth it.

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