Cruise ship industry traffic is getting a new boost into Southeast Alaska in August with the arrival of the Norwegian Encore at the site of what was once a thriving pulp mill, now transformed in a multi-million-dollar dock facility to accommodate neopanamax sized vessels.
It’s one of the latest steps in the long-term transformation of Alaska’s southeasternmost major community, which lies on Revillagigedo Island, a summer fish camp for Tlingit Natives on the southern tip of the Inside Passage, which connects the Gulf of Alaska to Puget Sound.
“We’re excited the ships are coming back to Alaska,” said John Binkley, president of the Ward Cove Dock Group in Ketchikan. “I feel great, excited, over the moon. The island is all excited. Tour operators and developers of the Ward Cove Dock Group had been ready to welcome the big cruise vessels during the 2020 cruise season, but with the novel coronavirus pandemic sweeping globally no cruise ships showed up.”
Now the Norwegian Encore, voted Porthole Cruise Magazine’s best new ship of 2020, is set for a first call, non-revenue arrival with company guests on Aug. 4, followed by a second stop with some 4,000 passengers on the 169,000 gross ton vessel on Aug. 12. All passengers and crew are required to be fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus. Other cruise vessels began arriving several weeks earlier at the city-owned Port of Ketchikan.
Binkley partnered in the dock investment with Ketchikan businessman Dave and Andrew Spokely, and then in partnership with Norwegian Cruise Lines, proceeded with the project, which is designed to moor two neopanamax ships at once. Neopanamax vessels are about 1,400 feet in length, 180 feet in width and 60 feet in draft, compared with 1,155 feet in length, 141 feet in beam and 47.5 feet in draft for panamax vessels.
Turnagain Marine Construction of Anchorage, the firm that built the dock, will be honored this fall with the receipt of Associated General Contractors of America’s National Environmental Enhancement Award, honoring members that “build the nation’s most impressive construction projects ranging across the building, highway and transportation, utility infrastructure and federal heavy divisions.”
Development of the new cruise dock itself had indeed presented a challenge.
“Permitting is always a big challenge,” Binkley said. “This was particularly challenging because it was a superfund site.”
When the old Ketchikan Pulp Company, the mainstay of the city’s economy, closed its doors in 1997, environmental regulators found extensive pollution at the mill site and at the bottom of Ward Cove, where the company had dumped waste into the water for years. Decomposing logs had produced toxins that made the seafloor uninhabitable for many critters that dwell there. Ultimately, that seafloor area was capped with a thick layer of sand and subsequently former bottom dwellers returned.
To ensure the environmental safety of that sand cap, “we needed to reduce our footprint, so there was a unique design that reduced the number of pilings we had to use,” Binkley explained.
“It was all a challenge also because of the global pandemic, but Turnagain Marine was just very organized an efficient,” Binkley said. “They have a great workforce, and they were careful in terms of the process.”
Jason Davis, president of Turnagain Marine Construction, was in fact quoted in a letter announcing the dock project, saying that “we anticipated the environmental challenges from the initial concept and designed the project to protect past environmental cleanup actions and the abundant marine life in the cove.”
Dock Design & Construction
The dock design was modified to use fewer pilings, and thus fewer penetrations of the sea floor, creating a more robust, unified structure, Binkley said. Silt curtains were used too, to contain sediment as the pilings were being installed.
Another design decision critical to the project was to have the dock not run parallel to the beach but perpendicular, so that the stern of the vessels remains in water over 130 feet in depth, Binkley said. That decision will avoid scouring of the bottom of the cove by the vessels’ propulsion systems, protecting the habitat for critters inhabiting the sea floor, he said.
During construction, Turnagain also had five marine mammal observers in the area on the lookout for whales and other sea mammals, he said.
Sound is critical to the survival of orca and bowhead whales, who rely on their keen hearing abilities to detect, recognize and locate important sounds to navigate, avoid predators, forage and communicate in the marine environment. For that reason, marine construction projects at ports and elsewhere are required under their permits to cease operations when these whales are detected within a certain distance of the construction work.
Work continues meanwhile on the uplands, which include some 57,000 square feet of old brick buildings from the old Ward Cove plant. Upland facilities will include a welcome center for visitors coming off of the cruise ships into the Southeast Alaska rainforest. “People won’t go into a parking lot, but a welcome center, to get oriented,” Binkley said. “Then they will be taken to motor coaches” for onshore side trips, for cultural activities, visits to totem parks, kayaking and even ziplining.
“We have a lot of plans for the whole area,” he said. “We will develop that over time as finances allow.”
Officials in the city of Ketchikan, one of the communities most severely economically impacted by the pandemic, are ready, said Michelle O’Brien, executive director of the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce. Independent travelers have been showing up, along with several smaller cruise ships, she said. Tourism season business is not back to normal, but it’s getting better, she said.