The Alaska Marine Highway is a ferry service that connects many islands and isolated places in Alaska. The 5,600 kilometers of ferry routes run between Bellingham, Washington and Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, with a total of 32 ferry ports in Alaska, British Columbia and Washington. The ferry service is part of the National Highway System and receives federal funding.
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The Alaska Marine Highway is served by a series of ferries that operate partly in coastal waters, partly more in the open sea. There is sailing all year round. In southeast Alaska, the ferry service connects 4 sections of State Route 7. The primary interchange of the Alaska Marine Highway is in the state capital Juneau. Ketchikan houses the operator’s headquarters.
Unlike much of Europe, the Alaska Marine Highway routes take a lot of time, shorter routes, especially in southeastern Alaska, can be completed in half a day, but longer routes often require several days. For example, the sailing time from Ketchikan to Juneau is over 17 hours and from Bellingham to Ketchikan approximately 38 hours. A route from Juneau to Whittier takes almost 40 hours. The sailing time from Homer to Dutch Harbor is a cumulative 56 hours, excluding mooring times in the ports of stopovers.
Most ferries are designed to accommodate passengers for extended periods of time due to the large distances between ferry ports. Although these are not luxury cruise ships, the ships have more extensive facilities than ferries that sail between ports for a few hours at most.
The Alaska Marine Highway handles approximately 350,000 passengers and 100,000 vehicles per year. The ferry service is popular among tourists. The tourist supply is the main reason the boats continue south to Prince Rupert and Bellingham. The number of departures is less in the winter period due to lower demand. Most ferries then go into maintenance, but important routes are maintained all year round.
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A distinction is made between long routes and short routes, also known as ‘day routes’.
The southeast route has a primary route between Bellingham, Washington and Skagway, Alaska. This service stops in Prince Rupert, British Columbia and continues to Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Juneau and Haines in Alaska. This is complemented by a number of shorter routes, especially in the area between Ketchikan and Skagway is a large number of sailing routes and destinations. The southeastern route uses the so-called ‘Inside Passage’, a coastal route sheltered from the open ocean. This makes it possible to sail between Bellingham and Skagway without going far out to sea. These ferry services also offer stunning views of the Alaskan coast.
The southwest route is located between Prince William Sound, Kodiak Island, the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands. Destinations on the peninsula and the Aleutian Islands can only be served in summer due to the weather, in winter Port Lions on Kodiak Island is the furthest destination to the southwest. Dutch Harbor is still nearly 1,000 kilometers to the southwest as the crow flies.
The central route crosses the Gulf of Alaska, between the southeast and southwest. These routes are characterized by long sailing times between destinations. Day routes here are only in the Prince William Sound from Whittier to Valdez and Cordova. Due to the large detour distance over the mainland, the ferry service between these places is faster than driving through the interior of Alaska.
In 1948, the Chilkoot Motorship Lines was founded and operated a ferry service between the capital Juneau and Skagway and Haines, connecting the Alaska capital to the international road network. In 1951, this company was purchased by the government of what was then the Alaska Territory. In 1959 Alaska became a state and $18 million in bonds was approved to establish a network of ferry services in the coastal region of southern Alaska. This allowed ships to be bought and ferry ports to be built.
Several ferry services were added to the Alaska Marine Highway in the 1960s and 1970s. MV Aurora entered service in 1978, the last new ferry service for a period of 20 years. Originally, the city of Seattle was the southernmost point of the Alaska Marine Highway. In 1989 this was changed to the slightly more northerly town of Bellingham, also in Washington. After the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 it was decided to purchase a new ferry that could be used in the event of a subsequent disaster, this became the MV Kennicott which was put into service in 1998 and purchased with money from the compensation from Exxon. Since then, mainly smaller ships have been purchased for the shorter routes in southeastern Alaska. All ferries are named after Alaskan glaciers.
In 1997 the Inter-Island Ferry Authority was established with the task of improving ferry services to Prince of Wales Island. Prince of Wales Island was served only to a limited extent by the Alaska Marine Highway. The first sailing route was put into operation in 2002.