At 12:07 p.m. on Thursday — a warm, bright day, with a breeze just strong enough to keep flags from drooping — the Hubbard, the Alaska Marine Highway System's newest ferry, pulled away from the dock at the Ketchikan Shipyard, headed for its next destination.
Pointed directly down the Tongass Narrows toward the cruise ships ringing downtown Ketchikan, the vessel glided through the water under the cloudless sky before firing its bow thrusters to make a tight U-turn to sail north, to the future.
Carrying its 24 crew members and their new quarters, the Hubbard continued on its voyage to Juneau, where it will begin service on Tuesday, four and a half years after it was built.
The Hubbard and its sister ship, the Tazlina, were funded in 2014 for construction in the state. The pair of "Alaska-class" ferries are to date the only ferries in the fleet that have been built in Alaska.
Numerous design changes, both before and after they were built, complicated the construction and operation of the vessels. The state initially considered including crew quarters on both ships, which would allow them to make sailings longer than 12 hours while still complying with U.S. Coast Guard regulations. Instead, planners decided not to include crew quarters. The ferries would operate as day boats, running up and down Lynn Canal to connect Haines, Skagway and Juneau on sailing days less than 12 hours.
The ferries also were designed with doors to load cars in the bow and stern, rather than the side. In conjunction with planned upgrades to the docks in Haines and Skagway that would accommodate those loading methods, the vessels would be able to load and unload passengers more efficiently and fit within the 12-hour day work requirements.
But those dock improvements were never completed, meaning both ferries would have to accommodate the existing infrastructure, slowing the boarding process and making it difficult for the ferries to complete their sailings within those Coast Guard requirements. The state eventually spent a total of $4.4 million to build forward-side doors on both vessels, which were installed in 2021.
Then in 2018, the state changed course, announcing that it would be adding crew quarters on both ships to allow them to complete longer sailings if needed. Last year, the state awarded Vigor Alaska the $15 million contract to install crew quarters on the Hubbard, along with a galley, a scullery (for utensil and dish storage and cleaning) and a small mess for the crew. The work was done at the Ketchikan Shipyard.
Boarding the Hubbard on Thursday morning, the fresh "new ship smell" of the interior made it clear that it has yet to see passenger service.
The new galley is located close to the center of the upper deck, replacing what had been a "team room" on the upper deck that would have been used by traveling sports teams, AMHS Marine Transportation Services Manager Troy Sherrill explained while giving the Daily News a tour of the ship.
From there, the galley flows into the scullery and then to a compact crew mess. A door from the mess opens to a slender tan hallway (matching the rest of the ferry's interior) and the eight two-person staterooms, each featuring a sink and bunked beds that can house 16 of the ship's 24 crew members.
Up a staircase lie the remaining eight single-person accommodations and a small laundry room, lining an L-shaped corridor that connects to the existing bridge deck's rooms and the bridge itself. These new rooms on the bridge deck replace what had been open air, and are the most obvious visible evidence of the project.
Many workers who were aboard the Hubbard on Thursday morning said they were excited to have the crew quarters, including its chief purser, Jen Ireland, who lives in Ketchikan.
"Over on the Taz, right now, until they get the crew quarters put on, anybody that goes there, if you don't live in Juneau, you're living out of a hotel," she said. "It will be nice to actually say, 'I can go to work and stay on the same boat again.' That's a perk for me."
The state plans to send the Tazlina down to Ketchikan to get its own set of crew quarters once the Hubbard arrives in Juneau, AMHS Marine Director Craig Tornga told the Alaska Marine Highway Operations Board last month. The state also is considering whether to further modify the ferry to comply with international Safety of Life at Sea standards that would facilitate sailings between Ketchikan and Prince Rupert, British Columbia.
The Department of Transportation did not provide an update on the status of plans for the Tazlina by press time Friday.
With such a new vessel, crew members had to figure out how to set their own procedures and expectations, Capt. Sam Abell explained in an interview on the Hubbard's bridge.
"It's a completely different experience, to show up on a brand-new boat. For example, that ship" — Abell gestured to the Matanuska, tied up nearby — "has been running for, what, 60 years? There's 60 years of precedent on everything. ... You get here, and it's just a blank slate. It's a bit overwhelming at first."
Still, "it's exciting to bring a new boat out," Chief Engineer Chris Fenn said.
"It's nice to be able to go back to the old days of providing the daily service to north Lynn Canal like we used to do on the Mal(aspina) and the Taku," he said. "I used to do that run. It was a nice run."
Fenn said the ship will be well-received when it arrives in the capital.
"The public is really excited for getting back daily service to north Lynn Canal," he said. "I live in Juneau, so everybody in my community, yeah, they're happy to see it. And I assume we're going to be packed a majority of the summer, if not all of the summer."
Likewise, said Port Captain Mara Cowan, AMHS employees haven't forgotten the people they serve. Cowan, who helped oversee the completion of the crew quarters work, said she was happy to finally have the project completed. Although it often involved "putting out fires," workers felt motivated and unified by a sense of purpose, she explained.
"We knew that this needed to go on a run by the 23rd, no later. And everybody was like, muscled together to make it happen," said Cowan. "Which was amazing to see. Like, people that don't get along typically, they had to get along. They had to make it work."
Abell chimed in: "Everybody did not want to disappoint the communities of Alaska."
Cowan added: "That's what it came down to, was service for the community. Nobody cared about what the commissioner wanted or what the general manager wanted. It was like, 'We need to do this for the community to show that we can deliver for them, because we care about what they need.' The crew just all cared about that. And that was amazing. That's what caused people to come together and really make it happen."