As of Thursday afternoon, the cause of the M/V Columbia’s engine troubles was still unknown. But, technicians from Texas were expected to arrive later in the day to inspect the vessel and give a better estimate of how long the ferry will be out of commission.
The ferry is already a day and half behind schedule and still needs to make the run to Bellingham, Washington. So, the regular trip to Haines and Skagway on Monday is not happening.
The regular stop from the Columbia in Haines and Skagway sees a lot of the bigger vehicles. There are only two ferries that stop in the two Upper Lynn Canal communities that can accommodate larger RVs and trailers. The Matanuska is the other one. For Haines Hitch-Up RV Park owner Fred Bretthauer, the delays mean a big cut to his seasonal business.
“We’re getting some cancellations already from folks that are not going to be able to make the trip,” he says. “We’re going to have to see if the ferry system puts another boat on. If they don’t put another boat on, then I think we’re probably going to see, I would say, a 20 percent knock off of traffic in the next couple of months.”
Jeremy Woodrow is the spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Transportation. He says finding another vessel to pinch-hit immediately is unlikely.
“This does happen from time to time,” Woodrow says of the breakdown. “One of the unfortunate parts is, the way that the current summer schedule is, due to budget reductions, we don’t have as many ships running. So, we don’t have the availability to take another ship, change its routes and accommodate passengers that may be displaced by the Columbia’s outage.”
Right now, there are almost 200 displaced passengers in Petersburg.
Woodrow says they’ll know more about the schedule after the experts investigate the cause and find a fix for the 42-year-old ferry.
For RV park owner Bretthauer, he says they’re already down business because of a scaled-back ferry schedule.
“With the reduced schedules, we’ve only got a couple of days a week that any size of an RV can get back and forth between here and Skagway,” Bretthauer says. “So, it’s affecting the traffic between here and Skagway and it’s also affecting the folks that have got reservations going to Bellingham.”
While it’s never a good time for a ferry breakdown, for Haines, this timing couldn’t get much worse. Jessica Edwards is the director of the Southeast Alaska State Fair. The huge event starts next Thursday and runs through Sunday. It brings in visitors from around the state, the Yukon and beyond. Edwards says, while some vendors and special guests will arrive early next week, the biggest impact will happen if the ferry still isn’t running the Monday after the fair. That’s when all the bands are supposed to depart Haines to make connecting flights.
“We have 18 people who are scheduled to leave on that late-night ferry and they had connecting flights early Tuesday,” says Edwards. “When that boat cancelled … those bands had to take the next (closest) departure which was Sunday night. We’re scrambling to find donated housing in Juneau for 18 people for two nights. It’s quite an impact.”
Subbing in the Fairweather next Monday could be an option, though DOT’s Woodrow says they’ll have to just wait and see. Because the problem has yet to be diagnosed, it’s not clear when the Columbia will be up and running again.
Find updates at ferryalaska.com.