David Bell has sailed with Alaska's Marine Highway ferry fleet since he was 25. He writes in from his chair in the bos'n room on the M/V Tustumena, currently in the Ketchikan shipyard and shares the history and importance of his favorite ship in the fleet, beloved by so many Alaskan coastal communities - the "Trusty Tusty."
On the M/V Tustumena's history
"The ship was designed by Phillip F Spaulding and associates in Seattle Washington and was built in Sturgeon Bay Wisconsin in 1964. It is only a year younger than the M/V Malispina and the M/V Matanuska. After 5 years of sailing her in Alaska she over went a lengthening of 54 feet. The Trusty Tusty is now 296 feet long and 59 feet wide. She was the original ocean going vessel for the Alaska Marine Highway. The marine highway now has two after the Kennicott came online sometime in the 90’s. Both ships are unique because they both have vehicle elevators to deal with the large tides in south central Alaska, and they both have stabilizer fins to handle the rough weather. What makes the the Tusty unique is it draws a lot less water than the Kennicott, and with our smaller size we’re able to get into ports in western Alaska where the Kennicott can't. The Kennicott has made runs out the chain and when the Tusty has been delayed in shipyard, but it can’t get into every port."
Lifeline of Coastal Alaska
"As many Alaskans know, the Tusty is really not only the lifeline connection for Kodiak and the mainland, but also the Aleutian chain. During the summer, we’re hauling so many different things out the chain – from cars, to fishing nets, to homemade box trailers made out of plywood, to construction equipment, boat trailers, etc. Not to mention it’s also an “Aleutian Cruise ship” for tourists from all over who love birding and adventure. It’s also a way for relatives who live on the chain to be able to visit each other for a few days or a couple weeks without having to fly in an already dangerous and unpredictable area, due to the weather and small bush planes out there."
The Little Engine that Could
"This ship has been the 'little engine that could' in some of the roughest waters to sail in the world. The Gulf of Alaska, especially around the Barren Islands and Shelikof straits is notoriously rough waters due to large tides and high winds and some different bottom composition which can make it challenging for an almost 300-foot ship. It used to be worse back in the day because the ship used to home port out of Seward. I’ve heard many stories from now retired sailors about getting tossed around going between Kodiak, Seward, and into Prince William Sound. In fact it wasn’t until about 2014 or so when this ship was taken off of a cross-Gulf of Alaska run that it did for three weeks straight in January going from Homer, to Whittier, to Juneau to bring Legislators' cars down for the legislative session in Juneau. I remember many a rough trip on that run."
A Caring Crew
"After all these years one of the reasons that she is still going is because of a dedicated crew, that takes good care of her in layup (shipyards) and on the run as well. We spend half of the year–sometimes more–living onboard, which for some is half a lifetime. I’ve worked on almost every ship in the marine highway and although some have a real love and affinity for their ships, nobody takes better care of their ship than the crew of the Tustumena."
Working Aboard the M/V Tustumena
"I started on the Tusty as a watchman in February of 2010. I was 25 years old. I had been on Tugs and Landing crafts all over Alaska from the age of 19, when I dropped out of college to do what I had always truly wanted to do with my life which was work on the water. I come from a maritime background starting with my grandfather, (he worked briefly on ships carrying horses over to England pre world war 2), and my father. I tried for three years to get a job on the Tusty, it was still a prestigious job back then (it’s still a good job now but obviously with the state budget cuts etc., it’s not as prestigious as it once was). After time and seniority gained, I got a Ordinary seaman (OS) job on the Tusty. It took a couple years. Then finally after a couple crew retirements I got an Able Seaman (AB) job on the Tusty. These jobs include, steering the ship, running the vehicle elevator and turn table, lashing vehicles and equipment amongst other things along with routine maintenance of the ship.
In 2016 my girlfriend (now wife) and I decided for a change and moved to Juneau from Homer/Anchorage. Shortly after I put in for a AB spot on the Kennicott and got it. After sailing for a little over a year we decided that eventually we would move back to the Anchorage are and are in the process of doing that soon. I saw a really good opening on the Tusty and took it. As much as I love the Kennicott and the people that are my friends there (Kenni will always be my second ship), the Tusty felt like coming home.
My current position is a 'SE Regularly Assigned Relief Bosn. It has turned out to be a fun job. I get to work almost all the boats in the fleet. A bosn is the lead deckhand, and is in charge or working with the Chief mate on loading and unloading the vessel. You’re also in charge of keeping up on maintenance logs and assigning projects to the deck crew. You’re up in every port, always on the car deck. It’s like playing a big game of Tetris sometimes which can sometimes make it challenging, but I like it. I luckily learned from a lot of great bosun’s and senior ABs that have experience doing the job. Many of whom are 3rd and 2nd mates on the Tusty. I also got to upgrade to bos’n a lot as an AB so I come into it with some experience. The most important thing that someone taught me a long time ago is, “you’re only as good as your crew." I think that relates to any boat job.
I spent most of my last summer working bos’n on the new ship the Tazlina which runs mainly from Juneau to Haines and Skagway, but can also go to some smaller communities on the northern panhandle. Luckily I was able to “go home” to the Tusty this past September-December and work bos’n on the Tusty for half of the time I was here."
We grew up riding the Tustumena to and from our homestead on the Aleutian Chain and Homer each spring and fall - at the beginning and end of each salmon summer. We brought our dog, our cat, totes of jam and coolers of frozen salmon, building supplies, school books, fresh groceries, fishing nets, and whatever else we needed for the season ahead. We have fond memories of riding this iconic ferry boat together as a family, and made a hoodie to honor it.
Shop the Tustumena Hoodie here.
Sailing Aboard the M/V Tustumena
Hi! That was a fun and interesting article to read, especially for those of us who have traveled on the TT. Thanks for sharing your story with us, David!
Well done David…to better times when we can get back to serving our Alaska