Built in Wisconsin in 2000, and commissioned in Sitka in 2001, the USCGC Maple is a fixture on the Sitka waterfront. The voyage to her reassignment in Charleston may take the Maple through the famed Northwest Passage. (KCAW file photo)

When the Coast Guard Cutter Maple leaves Sitka this week (7-12-17), she won’t be coming back.

The 225-foot buoy tender is bound for Baltimore for a refit, and then for her new homeport of Charleston, South Carolina.

The Maple’s 50-member crew will return to Sitka and spend six months preparing for their replacement ship. While they wait, they may also be be sharing some amazing memories of their final Alaskan voyage. The Maple is scheduled to travel to the East Coast via the famed Northwest Passage — only the 6th Coast Guard vessel to do so.

KCAW’s Robert Woolsey has the story from on board the Maple.

Downloadable audio.

Maple executive officer Lisa Hatland’s humor about the world being “a lot smaller” at the poles is actually a sly reference to the fact that most 2-dimensional cartographic projections of the Earth create the impression that distances are farther than they really are. Nevertheless, Sitka-to-Baltimore via the Northwest Passage is an epic cruise. The Maple will be escorted by the Canadian icebreaker Sir Wilfred Laurier through the often ice-bound Victoria Strait.

I must be a bit of a Flat-Earther. 43 days doesn’t seem like enough time to cruise around the northern edge of the continent.

The Maple’s executive officer, Lt. Lisa Hatland, sets me straight.

“Remember, the world is smaller up there, so it doesn’t look as bad.”

Sure, if something just shy of 7,000 miles is your idea of not too bad.

“It’s still quite a distance, and we have three different plans depending on actual ice conditions, about which waterways are safer. And we are planning on Canadian ice breaker support for at least for a little bit of the way, in Victoria Strait.”

I’m speaking with Hatland on the bridge of the Maple. It’s open ship day, and about 65 other Sitkans have passed through to say goodbye to a vessel that’s been an icon of the local waterfront for since 2001.

That cane in the Maple’s electrical nerve center is no walking stick: It’s a lifesaver. Petty Officer
Kossivi Deku, an Electrician’s Mate, demonstrates how he’d pull a crewman from the panel in the event of a high-voltage mishap. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

The cruise through the Northwest Passage is a bit of daring. Like cruising anywhere in Alaska or the Arctic, most of the time you never know what conditions are like until you get there. 60 years ago, in 1957, three Coast Guard Cutters — the Bramble, Spar, and the light icebreaker Storis — all made the voyage, escorted by the Canadian icebreaker HMCS Labrador. The Maple’s trip is intended to celebrate that anniversary, and to reestablish logistics with Canada for securing this important waterway.

This important — and mostly desolate — waterway. Hatland says the Maple typically stays out a week at a time on its deployments. The Northwest Passage is a long haul — basically, Nome to St. John’s, Newfoundland without a port call. The trip will be a significant test of the capacity of the ship and crew — if the Maple gets the go-ahead.

The Maple’s single propeller is powered by twin 3,100 horsepower engines. Like almost everything aboard the 17-year old ship, the engine room is spotless. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

“It’s as final as we can say. It’s not absolutely official because there are more environmentals. We’re not an icebreaker, we’re not going through with dedicated icebreaker escort. There are still some areas where the ice has not completely cleared yet — and it’s looking favorable — but we’re not going to be 100-percent sure, Yes this is what we’re doing until we get up there and see the actual ice conditions.”

Sound: A family with small children tours the engine room. “That’s a big jump…”

The Maple looks ready. The families touring her are seeing a spotless ship — even below decks . You probably could eat off the twin, 3,100-horsepower engines. Shrink-wrapped pallets of soda are laid in for the voyage, the freezers are packed full, there are a lot of dry stores.

One year into her tour as second-in-command of the Maple, Lt. Lisa Hatland is “where I love to be.” Five years ago, Hatland also served aboard the Kukui in Honolulu. The Kukui will replace the Maple in Sitka. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Up on the flying bridge it’s a little quieter. There is an extraordinary view of the Sitka channel and the town, and Hatland can reflect on what might be ahead for this ship. She considers the Northwest Passage a once-in-a-lifetime transit, and a historic honor for a Coast Guard vessel.

As the Maple’s second-in-command, Hatland is in the right place at the right time. Her dad was Navy, but she got a degree in Marine and Environmental science and joined the Coast Guard.

Hatland – The type of environment I like is being close to nature and doing research. So for me, being out at sea is what I envisioned when I joined. So I’m getting to do what I love doing.
KCAW – Is your dad okay with the fact that you’re a Coastie?
Hatland – He was a very quick conversion (laughs). He loves it. He’s got his “Coast Guard Dad” license plate.

The Maple will be replaced in Sitka by the Kukui — also a 225-foot buoy tender — which is currently in the Baltimore dry-dock. Until the Kukui arrives in about six months, the cutter Anthony Petit, homeported in Ketchikan, will tend to Southeast Alaska’s hundreds of aids to navigation.

What separates a buoy tender from most other ships is a Dynamic Positioning System, which allows all ship’s propulsion to be controlled from a single joystick. Although in the case of the Maple, this little guy doesn’t seem too joyful. The Maple is scheduled to deploy three sonographic buoys along its route to listen for marine mammals. The data will be collected by an oceanographer from the Scripps Institute. Deploying and retrieving buoys requires delicate positioning from the 225-foot ship. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)