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Mar 11, 2009

It takes a brave soul to venture into Alaskan waters in the dead of winter. FLYP’s Frank Flavin tempts fate to join the crew of the M.V. North Star for a North Pacific journey.

By Frank Flavin

At the boundaries of civilization in the Alaskan interior, in quasi-bustling Anchorage and the villages to the north and west, certain things can’t be taken for granted—like a steady supply of food and fuel.
Because roads are few and airfare expensive, the state depends on cargo ships to supply over 70 percent of its goods.
For these vessels, it’s a hazardous journey across rough seas, icy passages and shallow waters back to what locals call the “lower 48.”
Just last week, a ship operated by Horizon Lines was forced to hunker down in the Port of Anchorage after incurring major damage during a storm in the Gulf of Alaska.
So while crews occasionally are willing take on an extra passenger during the summer, in the winter months, outsiders are not allowed on board.
FLYP’s Frank Flavin was able to finagle his way onto Totem Ocean Trailer Express’ M.V. North Star during a week of unusually pleasant winter weather. He tells the story of his trip in this FLYP exclusive.

Tuesday, February 17, 1:30 p.m., Port of Anchorage, Alaska
It’s departure day, and Captain Mark Daly and pilot Frank Smith are on the outer bridge deck, juggling communications with the longshoremen and approaching tugboats. Most of cargo coming aboard is empty containers, to be refilled in Washington. As if the sheets of ice weren’t challenge enough, notoriously extreme tides make the Port of Anchorage one of the world’s trickiest to navigate. Looking down Cook Inlet past offshore oilrigs, seas are favorable as we enter the Gulf of Alaska.

Tuesday, February 17, 9–10 p.m., Gulf of Alaska
Most of the officers and crew, who make an average of 25 trips like this each year, are settling down to retire for the night. But an officer and a helmsman stay on the bridge for their four-hour watch shift. It’s their job to make sure the North Star stays on course and out of the way of other ships and inclement weather. The lights stay low here, because eyes have to be adjusted for the sea, to pick up beacons, lighthouses and other boats’ running lights. The bridge is manned 24/7, and if watchmen see high seas approaching, they’ll relay a message to Bosun John Glenn to get crew members off the upper deck and to safety.

Wednesday, February 18, 7 a.m., Gulf of Alaska
Breakfast is social hour, a time when the officers and crew kick back and share anecdotes about family and friends. Steward Paula Kaleikini serves up omelettes, and all day the galley offers sandwich fixings, cereal, fruit, ice cream, cookies, pastries, coffee and milk. Cookies are a big hit. Two lounges also serve as social spaces—one strictly for officers, the other for crew. These have just one satellite television each, and during this trip, basketball games are the program of choice.

Wednesday, February 18, 10:30 a.m. to noon, Gulf of Alaska
I take a whirlwind tour of the operational areas of the ship, checking out the power control, generators, propeller shafts and water system rooms. I’m struck by the cleanness of the spaces of the ship’s reduced emissions diesel electric system. I’ve been on boats with older systems where you could definitely smell fuel. But on the North Star, all I notice is salty air. Meanwhile, deck crews are constantly double-checking that all cargo is properly tied down. In the event of rough seas, you wouldn’t want containers rolling around.

Thursday, February 19, 8 a.m., Gulf of Alaska
I visited the ship’s special guests, a collection of reindeer traveling to Alabama via a trailer on a lower deck. They’re finally calming down after a rough first day or so. Their new owner, Larry Holder, has been making trips down to see them every few hours to soothe their nerves and make sure they are eating. They’ll soon join Holder’s fleet, Reindeer Unlimited, who have made their mark in the film Prancer as well as a Mariah Carey music video.

Thursday, February 19, 3 p.m., Gulf of Alaska
The ship’s officers lead a safety meeting on the topic of how to deal with hazardous materials. The ship’s first mate has a book detailing responses to spills of every type, including gasoline and diesel, and he and the captain quiz crewmembers on how to react. They also practice the drill for abandoning ship. Although all the ship’s staff could fit in one lifeboat, the North Star has two, as a contingency in case of emergency.

Friday, February 20, around noon, Port of Tacoma, Washington
A Washington-based pilot comes aboard to help guide the North Star through the narrows around Vancouver Island, part of the final leg of the journey. A few of the ship’s crew and officers have homes in Tacoma, and they take leave for a few hours. But many others stay aboard, waiting out the cargo loading time before the ship turns around to do it all over again—this time headed north to Anchorage. I want to do it all over again and am tempted to take Capt. Daly up on his offer of a return trip. But in the end, family obligations win out and my journey is over.

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