KETCHIKAN—The rear admiral from New York who convinced a small Alaska shipyard to build a never-been-done-before vessel told an appreciative crowd today that the M/V Susitna is what’s right about America: former Rear Admiral Jay Cohen, Office of Naval Research.
The Colombian immigrant turned naval-architect-from-Seattle admitted that at first he did not think a small ship repair yard on an Alaska island could build an impossible ship. This yard’s achievement today, he said, meant more to him than the improbable engineering feats he overcame: Guido Perla, Guido Perla & Associates, Inc.
The president of the shipyard who initially did not want to risk his company on a far-out-there project wound up leading the production of what became likely the most complex commercial ship in the last 100 years, while his company pioneered manufacturing techniques new to the ship building industry: Randy Johnson, Alaska Ship & Drydock.
Tales of underdog optimism, mental toughness, and Alaskan resolve were recounted repeatedly today at the christening ceremony of the Motor Vessel Susitna, (SUE-sit-NAH), what will be a ferry for Upper Cook Inlet and a test lab for the U.S. Navy.
All fit right in line with Guido Perla's dad's favorite saying: Better to fail than to be average.
Even the unlikely collaboration among the three groups who made it happen is the first of its kind. The Ketchikan shipyard built it and will deliver it. Matanuska-Susitna Borough which drove the idea, will own the ice-breaking, landing craft. The Office of Naval Research paid for most of the ship and has contracted to receive data for five years from the ship’s 1000 sensors to learn how its unique structure handles stress in the water and ice. Traditionally prototypes end up on scrap heaps, not at sea for 20 to 30 years as the Susitna will.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, in her hometown of Ketchikan, with her parents before her, including father, former Gov. Frank Murkowski, spoke of how the ship put Ketchikan on the map. Murkowski called it a state-of-the art, world-class vessel.
“There’s so many firsts that we have behind us here. This was truly an experimental hull design, breaking new ground with this vessel. It’s the first ship, the first ship that was ever built to operate as a shallow draft boat and a high speed twin hulled vessel. Then you throw in the complexities of saying well, we need this ship, we need this vessel to move through the ice, and how we use the lift to actually go under the ice to lift it up, again a first. The water jet propulsion units uniquely designed, the cargo lifts system. This is truly a first class vessel, " Murkowski said.
Four years ago the Senator welded her name into the keel plate as a humble sponsor of the ship. Today, Murkowski smashed a champagne bottle with conviction across the lower bow, to cheers from an audience, happy to cope with brisk ocean wind to get a look at the new ship.
At $70 million, the price tag is called “remarkably” cost effective given the ship’s complexity, its materials and its price per pound as compared to a mass-produced aluminum catamaran. The M/V Susitna is made of eight different grades of steel and seven different thicknesses. At about $34 per pound, the M/V Susitna was cheaper to build than the Fairweather and Chenega ferries at $38 per pound, said Lew Madden, Susitna co-inventor. Innovations in manufacturing led to great reductions in labor.
“Because this shipyard is really really smart,” Madden said. “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,” said Madden who is also the Owners Representative for the MAT-SU Borough.
President of Alaska Ship & Drydock Randy Johnson is now able to catch his breath. “Today I stand before you in front of one of the most unique advanced ships built in our time. A ship that will demonstrate to the world, science and technology capabilities that have never existed in another ship before. A ship that will revolutionize the way our military and commercial operators will operate in shallow waters around the globe,” Johnson said.
Alaska Ship & Drydock was celebrating the start of another ship on this day, the M/V Ken Eichner, a ferry for the Ketchikan Gateway Borough. The company hopes to construct a new Alaska Marine Highway ferry as well.
Rear Admiral Nevin P. Carr Jr., Chief of Naval Research, followed through on the potential his predecessor Cohen saw.
“Our navy needs a sea bases and ships capable of rapidly moving units, their equipment and supplies, long distances from the sea to the shore. These connector ships need to deal with a wide range of tasks to be effective, carrying cargo and troops efficiently at high speeds, in rough seas, in deep and shallow waters. They operate close to shore. Sometimes they have to beach to load vehicles and sometimes they have to cut sea ice. The only way to know if a ship can do all those things is to try,” Carr said.
“So the decision was made to build this vessel at half scale because that’s the best way to effectively examine the technology and fully test its many capabilities. Build a little, learn a lot. And its capabilities are many. The Susitna is the world’s first ship able to transition from high-speed waterplane area twin hull, what we call SWATH, to a barge full displacement mode and back again. It was designed to go up to 20 knots or at 13 knots 2100 miles and to operate in shallow littoral waters and even beach itself to offload cargo or people. Of course amphibious operations are not new to the Navy but amphibious operations from a sea base are continuously evolving. And the key to this idea is a connector ship with designed features like Susitna’s with advanced hull that raises and lowers enabling it to transform for different modes of operation.”
Matanuska-Susitna Borough Mayor Talis Colberg reflected on the overcoming of obstacles. He also said the ship was so advanced it looked like space craft.
“And it’s times like this that are celebratory but also times of quietness where we can look at this and say, this is something incredible. That’s been put together by people like Sen. Murkowski, Gov. Parnell, Manager Duffy and many many other folks. And because the foundation has been slowly and firmly laid, we can move forward and get past the people with criticisms and concerns and say look this is going to be something,” Colberg said.
Assembly Member Pete Houston and Borough Port Commissioner Paul DuClos were among MAT-SU officials as well as former Assembly Member Jody Simpson.
The ship will perform sea trials in August and will winter over in Ketchikan. MAT-SU is expected to see it next spring.
For more information call Public Affairs Director Patty Sullivan 907.355.0103. Photos and audio by Patty Sullivan, copyright MSB. Video shot by Stefan Hinman, Media Design Specialist. Visit Youtube channel for MAT-SU Borough.