Matanuska-Susitna Borough

Gearing up to celebrate an extraordinary ship

Mat-Su | Patty Sullivan | Thursday, June 10, 2010


M/V Susitna: Motor Vessel Susitna

Builder: Alaska Ship & Drydock, Inc., in Ketchikan. Employees hired: at peak 200, 90 dedicated to the ship, highly skilled, majority Alaskans, many retrained for specialty skills.

Owner: the Matanuska-Susitna Borough

Military role: The Office of Naval Research paid for much of the ship and has a contract to receive research data for five years from the 1,000 sensors on board. The stresses recorded on the ship will help the Navy learn what kind of landing craft to build in the future.

Characteristics: nearly a 1,000 tons, 198 feet long, 55 feet high, revolutionary two modes of operation: semi-swath or “small area, twin-hulled ship” and barge.Will travel up to 20 knots (23 mph), and carry up to 134 people and 20 or more vehicles.


KETCHIKAN, ALASKA—Two days before some 500 people are expected at a christening celebration of the M/V Susitna ferry, workers at the Alaska Ship & Drydock were adding touch up paint to railings and still threading some of the 60 miles of cable through the $70 million ship.

Today, red, white, and blue bunting was draped off the steel stern, and retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Jay Cohen shot personal video and exuberantly admired how the ship is able to transition from a catamaran-like vessel into a barge by lifting its barge deck 21 feet in ten minutes.

“I salute the workmanship of these Alaskan, American workers to make this a reality. We can have many dreams but it takes hard work to make it a reality,” said Cohen who was formerly the Chief of Naval Research who initiated the design and contract for the Susitna as a prototype for the U.S. Navy.


Shipyard workers such as an electrician named Archie would agree on the resolve of the workforce. Archie said he worked five months connecting a thousand switches, without a day off, often in Ketchikan’s 13 feet of annual rain. But looking back at the sleek, contoured steel vessel smartly decorated for the celebration tomorrow, he said it was worth it to build a one-of-a-kind ship, especially when others refused to accept the challenge.

Ship Co-inventor Lew Madden described the difficult structure of the ship as basically two ships in one: an ice-breaking swath and a landing craft.

“It can work in high seas, in rough waters. It can break ice, it can work in shallow waters and go up to the beach. There’s no other ship in the world that can do that,” said Madden, who also is the Owners Representative for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. The MAT-SU will own the ship when it is completed but will not bring it home until next summer. Work on the ship will conclude only after winter storms start in the Gulf of Alaska, so the ship will winter in Ketchikan. Pedestrian service is possible in the Upper Cook Inlet today, but the MAT-SU would like to also transport vehicles. A ferry landing on the MAT-SU side of Knik Arm is expected to be built by late 2011.


The M/V Susitna will connect the communities of Upper Cook Inlet and spur its development into a more complex regional economy. The ferry will serve MAT-SU, Tyonek, Anchorage, and Kenai for starters.

Tyonek representatives say construction jobs related to power generation will spike to 11,000 jobs beginning in 2014. Tyonek signed up for regular ferry service two years ago.

In Anchorage, a projected 730 jobs will be created as a result of the Susitna Ferry and rail development at Port MacKenzie, according to a 2009 study by the Institute of Social and Economic Research. The study says $50 million in annual income and $68 million in production and sales would occur in Anchorage from 2013-2016.

Because of the ship’s versatility, a variety of potential users are inquiring about it now, including the Alaska Marine Highway System, the Cook Inlet Spill Prevention and Response Inc., the Australian Ministry of Defense, French Polynesia, Singapore, and recently the U.S. Coast Guard. The ship could possibly help in the oil response effort for the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

“The center section can be lowered to within a foot of the water, you can deploy your equipment directly to the ocean,” Madden said.

While here, MAT-SU Borough Manager John Duffy met with representatives of Coffman Cove to discuss possible ferry passenger service for nearby communities such as Wrangell and Petersburg. “They’re excited,” he said. The ship can carry up to 134 people and 20 or more vehicles.

The Susitna ferry, with its seven different grades of steel, is not as vulnerable as the typical ferry. Weighing nearly a 1,000 tons, 198 feet in length and 55 feet high, the M/V Susitna can break through two feet of young ice by lifting it and snapping it across its steel lower bow. It was designed specifically for Alaska waters.

Alaska Ship & Drydock, Inc. built the ship and in doing so transformed a repair yard into a world-class shipbuilding yard. At its peak, some 200 workers were hired with 90 solely devoted to the ship. Efficiencies in the work processes drove down remarkably the cost to build, Madden said.

“The yard here, Alaska Ship & Drydock, pioneered several new construction techniques and invented their own innovative ways to manufacture this ship. They went from an estimated 40 hours to manufacture a panel to four hours. I don’t think anyone else can do that yet,” Madden said. “It’s a very tight ship. There’s not a wasted pound, not a wasted inch. A 1/16th of an inch is the largest error in any dimension,” Madden said.

The christening event takes place tomorrow, June 11, at 10 a.m. on the drydock. U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski will be among the speakers and is expected to follow tradition by breaking a champagne bottle across the ship for good luck.

Video footage here is of the ship's first entry into water in April. Video credit/ASD. Today the ship remains in drydock for more work. Video will be posted tomorrow on the MAT-SU Borough’s Youtube channel, followed by audio and images.

Photos: by Patty Sullivan/MSB. Top: M/V Susitna draped in red, white, blue. Second: Former Rear Admiral Jay Cohen admires the ship alongside ship workers. Third: The gate of the Susitna lowers revealing an amphibious craft aboard.

For more information call Public Affairs Director Patty Sullivan at 907.355.0103 or email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



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