Ferry’s Stranded, Don’t ‘Juneau?
As I was anxiously waiting in the cafeteria for dinner to be served, several staff walked by with a greeting and the daily update. That day, I took my truck off the ferry for another adventure around Juneau, taking my dog, Nootka, for a cross-country ski, exploring town, and grabbing a beer to pass the time and get off the boat. After being docked in Juneau unexpectedly for 8 days, you start to get creative with ways to fill your time, exercise your dog, and still carry on. As I sat in the cafeteria that evening eating another meal provided by the ferry staff, I waffled between finishing the only puzzle on board or hanging out on the car deck sitting on the bumper of my truck with my dog and a beer for the night. Maybe tomorrow there will be word from the mechanic and I’ll know when we can get to Haines.
Spending a week living aboard the Matanuska ferry in Juneau will be an experience for the books. I’m in the process of moving from Prince of Wales Island in southern southeast Alaska to Palmer, AK a trip of about 1200 miles, including a substantial portion of the trip by sea on two separate ferries. After quitting my job, selling most of my things, and packing the rest into my old pickup, I hopped in the truck with my canine copilot, and hit the road.
My plan was to take a 3-hour ferry from Prince of Wales Island to Ketchikan, catch another 26-hour ferry up the inside passage from Ketchikan to Haines, and then drive the 700 miles through Canada and interior Alaska, arriving in Palmer to move in with my wonderful girlfriend, Zoe. As I arrived in Ketchikan from Prince of Wales, things started to go sideways when I got a call from the Alaska Marine Highway System informing me that the Matanuska (the second ferry I needed to catch to get me from Ketchikan to Haines) had been delayed a day in Bellingham, WA with mechanical issues, but it sounded like everything had been squared away and it was good to go.
Feeling ready and relieved, we boarded the Matanuska ferry and departed Ketchikan, stopping along the way in the communities of Wrangell and Petersburg, and then continued north towards Juneau. However, when we got to the southern end of Stephens Passage, between Petersburg and Juneau, the vibrations of the boat suddenly changed and became uncomfortably quiet as we slowed down to half-speed and proceeded to limp our way up to Juneau running on only one engine, with the other engine broken down and offline.
If you want to know the nitty gritty, it turns out the engines had just been recently replaced with brand new ones from Rolls Royce less than 2 months ago, after spending 2 years getting overhauled down in Portland, OR. The engines were still under warranty by the manufacturer, so none of the mechanics onboard could open it up without voiding the warranty. Rumors were running rampant on the boat, but from what I heard the technician from Rolls Royce was flying in from Sweden, but his flights got delayed, and the airline lost his bag of specialty tools. Day after day I kept getting excited that he would show up and finally provide some concrete answers for what had happened and what it would take to fix it. He finally arrived on our 3rd day in Juneau, his tools eventually showed up, and some anticipated parts that had been put on a barge ahead of his arrival showed up as well. They started to open up the engine and realized it was a bigger issue than they had expected and actually needed a different technician and even more replacement parts to repair it. By the end of the week the process of finding another technician and additional parts was still underway, with morale on the ship spiraling down, and hopes of leaving for Haines anytime in the near future diminishing.
Throughout this delay, the staff onboard were incredibly nice and accommodating, giving a room to any of us who didn’t already have one, as well as free food, and the ability to take our vehicles on and off the boat, allowing us to go on adventures around town. Throughout my time there, I skied with my dog near the Mendenhall Glacier, hiked various trails around town, had dinner and drinks with friends in town, met some friendly locals at breweries, attended a fly-tying class, finished the only puzzle on board (with three pieces missing), and made some really awesome connections with ferry staff and fellow stranded passengers.
Aside from the great time I had while I was in Juneau, it didn’t change how frustrating it was to be indefinitely stranded there. As the forecast became worse for any hope of getting the ferry fixed, I started to make alternative plans for getting up to Palmer. Remarkably, scrounging up a crate in town for my dog and getting on a flight to Anchorage, with the idea that I’ll have to fly back to get my truck whenever it gets to Haines, was a cheaper option than any other. After spending 8 days docked in Juneau and living on the ferry, I pulled the trigger on a plane ticket and flew to Anchorage. Currently, I am waiting for my truck to get to Haines so I can fly back, pick it up, and resume moving my stuff to Palmer.
When it comes down to it, the reason why my truck is still stranded in Juneau is because the State continues to cut the budget more each year and the allocated funding isn’t enough to keep multiple boats operating in Southeast during the winter. So when one boat breaks down there aren’t any backup boats anywhere in the region to cover for it while it gets repaired. Although I escaped, there are still many stranded passengers sticking it out on the ferry in Juneau without alternative options, and at many ports throughout Southeast Alaska awaiting to move families, start jobs, and continue on with life.