Red Zed I

Crews load the former Alaska Marine Highway System fast ferry Chenega onto the heavy lift vessel Red Zed I's submersible platform on Friday in the Tongass Narrows. The Amak Towing vessel Ethan B., right, and Jennie B. moved the fast ferry from its mooring in Ward Cove and into the Narrows where the Red Zed has been anchored since April 2.  Former AMHS fast ferry Fairweather was also lifted onto the platform. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

The former Alaska Marine Highway System ferries Chenega and Fairweather on Friday inched closer to their departure for Spain.

Over the course of about five-and-a-half hours, starting just after 8 a.m., the fast ferries were moved from their mooring in Ward Cove to the heavy lift vessel Red Zed I.

Dozens of cars parked in and around Murphy's Landing to watch the transfer unfold, nearly three months after the Chinese-owned Red Zed I arrived in Ketchikan to pick up the ferries on behalf of the Spanish company that bought them in March for about $5.17 million.

Two tugboats from Amak Towing Co. — the Ethan B. and the Jennie B. — towed the two ferries, starting with the Chenega, to the Red Zed I. Crews from the Red Zed I, the tugboats and several small skiffs worked together to secure lines between the Chinese-owned boat and the ferries, then pulled and pushed the payloads into place above the blocking on the submerged lower deck of the heavy lift vessel.

A diver with Alaska Commercial Divers Inc., working from the Alaskan Salvor, inspected the blocking materials underwater to make sure that the transfer maneuvers didn't dislocate them.

But viewed from thousands of feet away, the complicated and active operation seemed to progress glacially, especially when spread out over several hours.

Nonetheless, people showed up — and stayed.

"It's the only entertainment available in Ketchikan right now," said Lance Ohmer, who worked for the marine highway for 30 years before retiring in 2008.

Ohmer found company watching the transfer with Bill Hopkins, a former AMHS captain, and Mark Hutson, another retired AMHS worker who started working with Alaska's ferries in 1974.

Hopkins met his wife, Wynn, on another AMHS vessel, the Malaspina, when she was spending a summer as an interpretive naturalist aboard that ferry for the U.S. Forest Service.

Though the couple never worked on the fast ferries, they still felt a connection to their sale.

"They're like a part of your family. ... They really have a soul to them," said Wynn Hopkins. "They're very personal to us."

Bill Hopkins said that he was glad the ferries would be used beyond their limited run in Alaska: "At least they have a life ahead of them."

Many spectators, including Bill Hopkins and Ohmer, brought cameras and binoculars.

So did Mike Cooke, a pastor at Clover Pass Community Church who has lived in Ketchikan for 30 years. Cooke watched the transfer with his son, William, who lives in Mexico. The younger Cooke was wrapping up a two-week visit to Ketchikan.

But the people watching the transfer on Friday didn't get to witness the Red Zed I rise out of the ocean with its cargo to sail off toward Panama.

That's because the vessel still needs lashing and other materials to totally secure the ferries before it can emerge from the water, said Stephen Bradford of Ward Cove Dock Group.

The missing materials are the latest examples of what has caused delays and miscommunications that have beset the ferries transaction since the Red Zed I arrived in Ketchikan on April 2.

The initial transfer stalled over concerns that the cribbing and blocking for the ferries could cause structural damage to the aluminum vessels. Language barriers also impeded communication between the crew of the Red Zed I and the Spanish company, Servicios y Concesiones Marítimas Ibicencas SA, Bradford said last month.

As of press time Friday, the ferries remain in the Tongass Narrows tied securely to the Red Zed I. Their departure is drawing closer.