By Rick Smeriglio for SCN – Longtime Sewardites can never forget and all patriotic Alaskans ought to salute the M/V Tustumena, not too long ago home ported here in Port City and recently overhauled at Seward Ship’s Drydock. As a workhorse ferry in rough, north Pacific waters, she has few peers. A tour of displayed mementoes on her bulkheads reveals another link to her Seward past: she rescued boat after boat just outside Resurrection Bay. By way of reward, captain and crew received a tip of the gubernatorial hat.
October 15, 1989 – F/V Cheetah loses steering and propulsion and radios for help as it drifts toward rocks in Porcupine Cove. Comes now the Tusty. In an act of superior seamanship, ferry crew manages to get a line to Cheetah in early morning darkness and rough seas. Cheetah gets a tow to safety and Captain Hopkins gets a commendation from US Coast Guard.
August 12, 1979 – F/V Little Scorpio loses propulsion in Gulf of Alaska in 30-knot winds and heavy seas. Tustumena diverts from Kodiak to Seward run and manages to get a mechanic onto Little Scorpio to attempt repairs until US Coast Guard arrives by helicopter.
September 23, 1979 – S/V Gone With The Wind overdue in Seward. While on Whittier to Seward run, Tustumena locates Gone With The Wind sparing everyone an extensive search. US Coast Guard issues Certificate of Merit to captain and crew of Tustumena.
October 14, 1977 – S/V Wind Dance radios for help off Cape Elrington. US Coast Guard requests Tustumena divert to scene. Tusty appears: two souls saved.
October 17, 1977 – F/V Seafarer in distress near Barren Islands, “hurricane weather”, “mountainous seas“. For the second time in three days, Trusty Tusty diverts from Seward run and aids helicopter rescue, three souls saved. Governor Jay S. Hammond signs letter commending Captain Hofstad and crew of M/V Tustumena.
The vessel fairly reeks with history and colorful characters. Captain John Scott Merrill likes to show off the very traditional, spoked wooden-wheel on the bridge. He says that during a refurbishment some years ago, a contractor replaced the wooden wheel with a smaller one of stainless steel. The crew wanted the old one back and they got it. The king spoke, where the helmsperson places a firm hand, has worn thin from many years of many grasps. Alex, the bosun sports a pearl earring and runs a crackerjack deck crew with just hand signals. He literally jumped ship from a Russian freighter and swam to freedom in Hawaii. Veterans of a particularly memorable crossing of the Gulf of Alaska had an upright piano and brass plaque installed in the saloon to commemorate the adventure. Sadly, the piano went by the boards in a refurbishment.
This year marks the 50-year anniversary of the Alaska Marine Highway System as well as the fiftieth year of service for Tustumena. State of Alaska has begun the process of designing a replacement vessel expected to cost between $200 and $250 million. Alaska names its ferries after glaciers. Tustumena Glacier feeds Tustumena Lake on the Kenai Peninsula
Character doesn’t come with price: it comes with time. Tustumena puts in at three villages that lack restaurants, Chignik, Cold Bay and Akutan. Locals come aboard to eat lunch in the dinning room when the ferry ties up. Captain Merrill says with a proud grin, “they call her the McTusty”. How about that for character?