The state ferry Columbia will soon sail south for repairs to a damaged propeller. That will leave Sitka without marine highway service for two weeks. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

The state ferry Columbia will be out of service for repairs through mid-November. The Kennicott will fill in starting Oct. 7. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

Alaska’s largest ferry will be down for repairs longer than expected. Another ship will fill in, but it’s smaller and some travelers will have to make other arrangements.

The Columbia’s drive system was damaged in mid-September, possibly by a log. Divers reported finding a bent propeller.

The ferry sailed south at reduced speed to a Portland, Oregon, drydock. But Alaska Marine Highway spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said crews found the propeller was OK.

“But the shaft and the gears that are inside the propeller system have all been damaged, likely due to some sort of strike below water. And what will need to happen is that whole system needs to be taken apart and put together with new gears, new pieces and be cleaned,” he said.

That could take until mid-November.

Woodrow said the ferry Kennicott was approaching its winter layup when the extent of the damage was discovered. So it will begin sailing the Columbia’s route Oct. 7. That includes Bellingham, Washington, port calls.

“The Kennicott is a little bit of a smaller ship when it comes to vehicle capacity and it’s a little bit of a slower ship. So it’s going to shift that schedule back a little bit. But for the most part, we will be able to fill in the Kennicott for the Columbia … through the middle of November,” he said.

Fishermen pass the ferry Kennicott in Whittier's harbor at the end of the 2011 season. Ferries and cruise ships deliver tourists to Southcentral at this port. Photo by Ed Schoenfeld.

Fishermen pass the ferry Kennicott in Whittier’s harbor at the end of the 2011 tourist season. The ship will fill in for the Columbia, which is down for repairs. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld)

He said no port calls will be cancelled, though arrival and departure times will change. But because the Kennicott carries fewer vehicles than the Columbia, some Bellingham reservations will be delayed or changed to ships traveling to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, which is also on the mainland road system.

The Columbia can carry 133 cars and trucks, while the Kennicott can hold up to 78 vehicles. Both have a passenger capacity of just below 500.

Woodrow said ferry employees are contacting affected travelers. He said new reservations will not be taken until Columbia passengers are rebooked.

The Columbia is expected to resume sailing Nov. 13, allowing the Kennicott to tie up for the winter. But the date depends on how long repairs take and whether other problems are found.

When the Columbia stopped sailing, most of Southeast Alaska’s larger cities lost one or two port calls a week. Sitka is going two full weeks without ferry service.