Selling the Susitna

It’s a landing craft. It’s a waterjet-powered fast ferry. It’s an icebreaker. It’s a white elephant.

It’s the Susitna, one of WorkBoat’s Significant Boats of 2010.

It’s for sale.

And it’s a shame that this innovative vessel has yet to find a home and a job. Built with federal funds under the auspices of the Office of Naval Research, the boat was designed and built to prove the concept of a variable-draft landing craft that the Navy and Marines could use to transport trucks, tanks and troops from offshore ships to unimproved beaches. But unlike most ONR prototypes, the Susitna was also supposed to do real work while supplying data to the Navy about its engineering and operations. That work was to be ferrying vehicles and people across upper Cook Inlet between Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough.

The Susitna 

But while ONR, Lockheed Martin, Guido Perla and Associates and Alaska Ship & Drydock in Ketchikan figured out how to design and build this unique vessel, the Mat-Su Borough and Anchorage still haven’t found a way to locate and construct the necessary infrastructure for ferry operations. So Mat-Su officials have thrown up their hands and said, the hell with it, sell it. 

If it had gone into service as a Cook Inlet ferry, it would not have been used to full capacity. For one thing, the variable-draft capability, which is such an important feature, wouldn’t have been used for this run. And it can only handle about 20 cars, so its viability as a car ferry is also quite limited.  But still, it was built to handle the winter ice in Cook Inlet and it could/should be shuttling people and trucks between the Anchorage area and the developing industrial area on the north side of the inlet. Without it or a long-discussed bridge, cars and trucks have to drive an extra 80 miles around the end of the inlet.

That officials from Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough couldn’t find a way to put this “free” boat to work is a scandal and all too typical of Alaska politics. Here’s hoping that someone can do the right thing and put the Susitna to work and U.S. taxpayers can get a better return on their investment. Lew Madden, one of the key players in the design and construction of the Susitna, believes this will happen. “I just want to see her operating and doing the right thing,” he said. “And I’m sure she will. She’s just too good a boat.” 

About the author

Bruce Buls

With a degree in English literature from the University of Washington (Go Dawgs!), journalism experience at the once-upon-a-time Seattle P-I, and at-sea experience as a commercial fisherman in Washington and Alaska, Bruce Buls has forged a career in commercial marine trade journalism, including stints at Alaska Fishermen’s Journal and National Fisherman, WorkBoat’s sister publications. Bruce spent 16 years as WorkBoat's technical editor before retiring in May 2015. He lives on Puget Sound’s Whidbey Island, about 20 miles north of Seattle (go 'Hawks!).

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