A new independent ferry service is planning its first sailings in Southeast Alaska in June. The Rainforest Islands Ferry plans to offer a four-days-a-week connection between northern Prince of Wales Island, Wrangell and Petersburg by ferry and mini-coach vans.
The Rainforest Islands Ferry is advertising the startup of the new service for Sunday June 14th. The converted landing craft can handle up to 28 passengers and six vehicles. It’s scheduled to make roundtrip runs between Coffman Cove, on northern Prince of Wales Island, Wrangell Island and South Mitkof Island near Petersburg, four days a week.
“The operating systems are all going together,” said Kent Miller, the North End Ferry Authority’s general manager. “We’re advertising for people right now and anticipate that in two weeks we’ll be able to start service.”
The independent port authority is based in Coffman Cove. It was advertising in late May to fill about 10 full and part-time jobs, seeking someone to captain the new ferry, along with deckhands, an office manager, and drivers for van service planned to accompany the new ferry.
The ferry will land at Shoemaker Bay, a harbor and boat ramp about five miles south of Wrangell, along with Banana Point, a remote boat launch ramp 25 miles south of Petersburg on Mitkof Island. The authority plans to offer mini-coach van service to take walk on passengers to and from Wrangell and Petersburg. On Prince of Wales, there’s also planned mini-coach connection from Coffman Cove to Craig, a trip of nearly 60 miles.
Miller helped work on the start up of the first independent ferry authority in the region, the Inter-Island Ferry Authority. At one point the IFA had a ferry connection between Coffman, Wrangell and South Mitkof but shut it down because it was not moving enough passengers to cover costs. However, Miller said the IFA’s service showed that link is needed. “It still is just as necessary. IFA’s service in 2006-2008 really proved that, especially in 2007, there was business for this route. Now with the road improvements between the Craig Klawock area and Coffman Cove, also on Mitkof Island, there’s much greater advantage to travelers and business people who want to go to and from the north.”
The Rainforest Island Ferry is smaller and takes fewer staff to run than the IFA vessels. But the new venture has had its obstacles. The new service was initially announced to start in 2012, then in 2013, but faced delays and funding shortfalls. Originally the authority had purchased a 160-foot oil rig supply vessel but did not have enough money to convert that into a passenger ferry. After selling that larger vessel, the organization purchased a 65-foot landing craft, and converted that for the new service.
Miller contrasted the new vessel with a ferry that connects Ketchikan to that community’s airport. “It’s not very similar to the airport ferry down in Ketchikan which is a double-ended boat and which is built for inland waters,” Miller said. “This one is built for exposed waters so it’s a more sea-kindly boat than the airport ferries. Those are also somewhat bigger in vehicle capacity and they have very minimal passenger accommodations.”
The ferry will have to pass through some exposed waters in Clarence Strait and Sumner Strait and Miller expects about 10 trips a year, out of the 200 planned, will be cancelled due to bad weather. The new service is planned to run year-round with two weeks of scheduled down-time each January.
Reservations are by phone, or email. The authority hopes to have bookings available over the website eventually.
The new service has cost around $2.5 million to purchase the vessel and refit it, along with the mini-coach vans. The funding comes from a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan that the ferry authority will repay. Miller said the operating costs pencil out based on numbers from the prior service between the three sites. “It’s really important to complete this link, which was, as I mentioned, part of the original concept for the locally developed ferry service to and from Prince of Wales, not to mention really the route between Wrangell and South Mitkof, which I think will be very handy for people making trips back and forth. So it’s great to have it actually coming together.”
Petersburg and Wrangell already have state ferry service connecting the two communities. At least one private tour boat company also transports passengers between south Mitkof Island and Wrangell.
The state ferry LeConte is also scheduled to make one roundtrip a month from the ferry terminals at South Mitkof and Coffman Cove this summer during months of July, August and September.
Round trips start at Coffman Cove at 9 a.m. then land in Shoemaker Bay just after noon and get to Banana Point around 1:20 p.m. The boat leaves Banana point just before 2:30, gets back to Shoemaker Bay before 3:30 and returns to Coffman Cove around 7:20 in the evening.
Adult passenger fares are 40 dollars between Coffman Cove and Wrangell, 45 dollars from Coffman to Banana Point, and 25 dollars from Wrangell to Banana Point. Van fares and vehicles add to those prices. However, the authority is offering discounts for groups filling up one vehicle.