The 58-year-old state ferry Matanuska has been at the dock in Ketchikan since Sunday morning, waiting for repairs, and is not expected to return to service until Saturday.
“The Matanuska is still in Ketchikan awaiting parts for repair of the starboard engine,” the Alaska Marine Highway System reported in a website posting Tuesday afternoon.
On Wednesday, AMHS announced that the Matanuska is scheduled to depart Ketchikan at 5:15 a.m. Saturday for a northbound sailing that will include stops in Wrangell, Petersburg and Juneau.
“Passengers and vehicles bound for Skagway and Haines will be transferred to the LeConte at approximately 5:30 a.m., Sunday, May 2, to continue the journey north,” according to the AMHS service announcement.
The Matanuska then will return south on a non-revenue (no-passenger) voyage to Bellingham, Washington for further repairs.
“It is anticipated that the Matanuska will resume its schedule Wednesday, May 5, northbound from Bellingham,” stated a Wednesday notice from the Alaska Department of Transportation.
In a Wednesday afternoon email to the Daily News, AMHS spokesperson Sam Dapcevich wrote that the Matanuska’s starboard engine lube oil cooler needs to be replaced.
“We encountered a shipping delay with the replacement part but expect that repairs will be made in time for the ship to depart northbound from Ketchikan on May 1,” Dapcevich wrote. “Additional warranty repairs are needed for the engines' power packs, and technicians will perform that work in Bellingham.”
AMHS also announced that the state ferry Kennicott was adding southbound stops in Petersburg and Wrangell early Thursday before its scheduled arrival in Ketchikan at 10:15 a.m. Thursday. The Kennicott is scheduled to depart Ketchikan southbound for Bellingham at 3 p.m. Thursday.
It was the Matanuska’s fourth mechanical breakdown since February, stranding passengers, and imposing costs and delays on travelers with few options.
The 408-foot-long mainline ferry, the only ship scheduled to call on Wrangell all summer, pulled into Ketchikan early Sunday morning on its northbound run out of Bellingham, Washington. Its next stop was planned for Wrangell.
Wrangell is scheduled to see the Matanuska once a week northbound and once southbound through September — both stops were canceled this week.
“It’s so unreliable now,” Wrangell Mayor Stephen Prysunka said Tuesday.
The Matanuska was first delayed on Sunday after two crew members tested positive for COVID-19. It was similar to a week ago Sunday, April 18, also on the first stop out of Bellingham, when two engineering crew members tested positive, and the ship was delayed 11 hours in Ketchikan.
“Out of an abundance of caution, the Matanuska was held in Ketchikan while the entire crew was tested,” Dapcevich said of the most recent Sunday delay.
The two crew members will isolate in their homes, one in Ketchikan and the other in quarantine aboard the ferry until the ship arrives in Juneau and the crew member can go home for isolation, the state reported.
The ship was booked with a light load out of Ketchikan, just 34 passengers, the state reported. About three dozen passengers and two dozen vehicles got off at their stop in Ketchikan. None of the 34 passengers booked to travel farther north are considered close contacts of the infected crew, Dapcevich said.
No new cases of COVID-19 related to the previous sailing have been discovered as of Wednesday afternoon, Dapcevich wrote to the Daily News. Also as of that time, five of the 34 passengers had chosen to cancel their sailings and “seek alternative transportation.”
The engine troubles were reported after the ship was held up for COVID testing.
This week’s breakdown is the fourth in about two months. The ship was taken out of service late March for repairs to its starboard engine and replacement of power-pack cylinder units on its port engine, Dapcevich reported then.
The ferry also was pulled out of service mid-March, and was pulled off its run in February with problems in its port-side reduction gear box.
Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, said Tuesday that: “Our ferry system is barely afloat, and this is just further proof of that depressing fact.”
The Matanuska was out for repairs for almost the entire first half of 2020 for extensive repairs to its reduction-gear system, leaving Southeast communities with no ferry service for almost two months until another ship could be put to work.
It was a troubled return to service for the ship after an almost two-year stint in the Vigor shipyard in Portland 2018-2019 for new engines and other extensive work, at a cost of more than $40 million.
The system’s other two larger-capacity vessels, the 58-year-old Malaspina, and 48-year-old Columbia, are out of service in need of multimillion-dollar repairs and upgrades.
For the ships that are running, the state last week announced it had boosted the allowable passenger capacity to 75% aboard the vessels from the 50% limit imposed to maintain social distancing and help prevent COVID-19 infections.
The new 75% capacity limit will apply to the Matanuska and Kennicott, which also serves Bellingham, and the three ships that recently came back into service for the busier summer schedule: the Aurora, which will serve Prince William Sound; the LeConte, which runs between Juneau, Haines and Skagway; and the Tustumena, which serves the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak and Southwest Alaska.
Wrangell Sentinel Writer Larry Persily and Daily News staff writers Scott Bowlen and Danelle Kelly contributed to this story.