The Alaska Marine Highway System ferry LeConte, which serves 10 villages in southeastern Alaska, is scheduled to be converted to a day ferry on June 9. The change is in response to a finding by the U.S. Coast Guard that the crew was not getting enough rest when the ferry operated on a 24-hour schedule.
The Coast Guard approved the 235-foot LeConte’s new schedule in May. Instead of traveling continuously from port to port, the ferry will be based in Juneau. There will be one overnight stay a week in Hoonah so that residents from two other villages can board there. The state will contract with smaller private ferries to make alternating weekly stops to the two other villages.
The new schedule would require reduced manning levels, which Alaska Marine Highway officials are negotiating with the three unions that represent the crews. Union officials are concerned about potential job losses created by running LeConte as a day ferry and believe that the new schedule will not provide adequate service for Inside Passage communities.
Following a grounding of the ferry in 2004, the Coast Guard began studying crew fatigue. On March 13 of this year, the Coast Guard issued a directive limiting the operations of the vessel based on a finding that crewmembers were not getting enough rest, according to Lt. Dan Buchsbaum of Coast Guard Sector Juneau.
The remote ports served by the Alaska Marine Highway were given waivers on post-Sept. 11 requirements for facility security plans, according to Buchsbaum. As a result, ferry crewmembers were performing many security duties normally done by facility workers, such as checking people and vehicles. “The study was done in order to make sure the crew wasn’t being fatigued as a result,” Buchsbaum said.
LeConte, which carries up to 300 passengers and 34 vehicles, has been operating 24 hours a day serving communities of the Inside Passage from Skagway to Hoonah. Each day the ferry usually calls at four to seven communities, stopping after journeys of between three and eight hours. The 24 crewmembers work a six-on, six-off shift. Engineers work a two-week on, two-week-off schedule; deck hands and other crew work one-week on, one-week off.
Fatigue was cited as a factor in the May 10, 2004, grounding of LeConte on the Cozian Reef in the Peril Strait near the northern tip of Baranof Island in calm seas and good visibility. The grounding was caused by a decision to alter course and the failure to observe a well-marked aid to navigation. A report by the National Transportation Safety Board dated July 28, 2005, stated that a factor was “the fatigue of the conning officer, the chief mate, who had significant sleep deficit because of work accomplished off watch in addition to standing a six-hour watch routine.”
During the Coast Guard’s study, officials twice rode on the vessel and discovered rest periods were not being observed. “It was an hour here, an hour there, but cumulatively, with the way the vessel is operating, these people were being exposed to fatigue,” said Lt. Cmdr. James Robertson, deputy at Coast Guard Sector Juneau.
Crew with additional security duties included deck hands and the chief purser. It was not the additional security duties that contributed to the fatigue as much as it was the nature of LeConte’s schedule. In addition to frequent stops, the vessel navigates difficult waterways, Buchsbaum said, which adds stress. “On their best days they were having a tough time,” he said.
Since there are no Coast Guard rules governing work-rest time for domestic vessels on near-coastal trips, the Coast Guard used the international standard of no more than 12 hours of work in a 24-hour period, Robertson said.
The ferry has been involved in over a dozen reportable marine casualties since the grounding. These included the loss of propulsion, machinery-related casualties and hitting a dock, but no other groundings, Buchsbaum said. The study showed “that this vessel has a higher incidence of marine casualties than the rest of the fleet,” said Robertson.
The ferry’s certificate of inspection could allow it to operate days with a crew of nine, according to Mary Siroky, special assistant to Alaska’s commissioner of Transportation and Public Facilities, but the state transportation office is proposing a 12-person crew.
Siroky understands that this is a major change for the crew. “They didn’t ask for it, they don’t want it and they’re not happy. We don’t blame them,” she said. However, she added, Alaska Marine Highway officials came to the same conclusion as the Coast Guard concerning LeConte’s schedule. “It is potentially not safe — these guys are not getting any sleep,” she said.
Although the daytime schedule will cut the ferry’s crew by 12, Siroky said “we anticipate that no one will lose a job over this.”
Former LeConte workers will be offered positions in one of the state-run ferry system’s 10 other vessels. Before LeConte’s new schedule and crew level can be made final, they must be negotiated with the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific, the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA) and the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P).
Union officials say the new plan does not provide adequate service to the smaller communities on LeConte’s route. Ben Goldrich, MEBA’s representative in Juneau, said, “unfortunately I do not think it can serve all the communities it formerly did as a day boat.” He is concerned about adequately staffing the engine room, which now has three licensed and three unlicensed engineers. “We are doing what we can to ensure job security,” he said.
Local officials from several of the outlying communities have protested the change, saying it will cause major economic damage, especially to a Sitka-based hospital which employs 1,000 people and serves 18 tribal governments.
Darryl Tseu, regional director for the boatmen’s union, said the unions proposed alternatives that would allow LeConte to operate in the traditional way while staying within Coast Guard guidelines using existing manning levels, but that their plans were not considered.
The union, he said, is negotiating with labor relations officials, not those who run the ferries. “We have not once had a person from operations included in the negotiations with the union,” he said.