One of the most attractive looking fleets in the world, in my opinion, is that of the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS), operated by the government of the US State of Alaska with over 3,500 miles (5,600 km) of routes.The service dates back to 1949 but was incorporated in its present publically owned form in 1963. The ships are named after Alaskan glaciers and have a unique and extremely smart dark blue colour scheme. Now from headquarters in Ketchikan, they operate along the south-central coast of the state, out to the eastern Aleutian islands, and via the Inside Passage of Alaska and British Columbia to Seattle. They serve communities in Alaska that have no road access working as far south as Bellingham, Washington, and as far west as Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, in The Aleutians, with a total of 32 terminals. The system has currently 11 vessels, including some on ‘day’ services and then there are overnight voyages of several days. Other places receive a scheduled visit infrequently, monthly or seasonally.
The route network is classified as part of the National Highways System and so receives funding from the Federal highway budget. By-passing Canadian territory means that people and vehicles, journeying between Alaska and the ‘mainland’ United States, may do so via Canadian waters but do not require customs and immigration controls.
There are some striking similarities to the Hurtigrute of the Norwegian coastal voyage, Bergen to Kirkenes. They have a similar number of terminals and operate in scenic fjord and offshore island waters which can be harsh in winter and difficult in storm conditions. The similarities go further in that Alaskan communities are in the forefront of the US fishery industry – Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians is the most important in the US by volume – and oil and gas exploration and production is another common activity. But as the Norwegian system has scaled up their vessels and targeted the cruise market, in Alaska the ships are tailored to local needs, needing small dimensions and shallow draft to serve some ports with tourism being secondary, and anyway, tourism has boomed in Alaskan waters but largely through many cruise line offerings – see the Malaspina at Skagway with a cruise liner in the background.
So the vessels are specifically designed for their routes and this being the US they are expensive to design and build. According to ‘The Jones Act’ they must be built and fl agged in the US and employ trained US mariners, on US rates of pay negotiated by strong maritime trade unions. The ships, therefore, must work for many years and can be described as dated, at least in appearance, which is of course why they can be very attractive - they look like ships used to look in the 50s and 60s!
The AHMS’s first vessel was inherited from their local government forerunners, the nearly new Chilkat operating out of Juneau. She had replaced a WWII landing craft. Perhaps she is full of character rather than ‘attractive’ and like her predecessor she could and did land her passengers and goods on open beaches as well as at ramps, though her tubby shape and draft apparently gave her an unenviable motion in a chop.
The AHMS fleet must be managed knowing modernisation and replacements are subject to Federal budget constraints. Unlike in Europe, no privatisation or ‘outsourcing’ here - in this the land of free enterprise and rampant capitalism! The system is also, by its nature, subject to political pressures. For example, there was a huge political fuss when the most recent acquisition, the fast ferry Chenega 760,’05, was moved from its planned base because the presence of its crew was a major support to the local economy.