Sitka’s industrial park may see its first cruise ship calls in 2021, if the season pans out as planned.
Park board members recently reviewed a request for moorage of a 300-foot ship at least seven times next summer.
The new floating dock at Sitka’s Gary Paxton Industrial Park isn’t really set up for mooring a cruise ship — even a small one — but it was designed to accommodate bigger vessels if needed.
It was put into service in 2018 with fishing vessels and tenders in mind — up to 150-feet in length.
Park director Garry White said the dock can be upgraded without much effort.
“It can accommodate a 300-foot vessel depending on its deadweight tons,” he said, “but so far with the preliminary numbers it looks like it will work, and it will require a different fendering system.”
Designs for the dock always included an overlay of a massive cruise ship tied to it, with several extra mooring dolphins extending to either side. But those dolphins conflicted with other uses in the park, and were never built. And the idea of mooring a ship in the park has always been a hot-button issue.
A board member asked White to clarify if tying up a cruise ship was even allowed under city code.
“A private entity can’t come in and build a new dock that accommodates vessels over 300 feet,” White explained. “But the city could build a dock that accommodates vessels over 300 feet. Silver Bay, for instance, couldn’t do that, or we couldn’t sell property to Company XYZ to do that, without going back and getting a vote of the people on that, or however the assembly wanted to handle that.”
Note: The City of Sitka has also zoned the industrial park to exclude several classes of retailers which cater to cruise passengers.
The ship in question is the brand new Ocean Victory, operated by Victory Cruise Lines, a subsidiary of the American Queen Steamship Company.
Fred Reeder, Sitka port manager for Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska, says the Ocean Victory will do a “turn” in Sitka — that is, exchange one load of passengers for another.
“The nice thing about the turning of a vessel is just all the other things that happen,” he said. “Provisions get loaded, and maybe they buy fuel — there’s just all that other stuff — and that’s where turning a ship you make more money than if it’s just a port of call.”
The Ocean Victory would arrive at 6 A.M. Reeder says, and unload its 165 passengers. (Note: According to the company website, the Ocean Victory can accommodate 200 passengers and 100 crew.) He says the company is working on a plan that would have them visit attractions in Sitka such as the Fortress of the Bear and the Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center, before being dropped off at the airport. Meanwhile, the next load of passengers arrived by air the previous evening, and is delivered to ship by around 5 P.M.
Reeder says this is turning into a good niche for Sitka, since he believes we’ll never have the capacity for the million-plus passengers seen in places like Ketchikan and Juneau.
“That niche, that small, adventure-based ship — UnCruise, Lindblad with National Geographic — that segment of the market is strong,” said Reeder. “They’re looking for places. That dock that the city built out there, it’s not going to take a big ship.”
Reeder is optimistic that the small-ship cruise lines are making the adjustments needed to safely cruise next year, once the CDC no-sail order is lifted. (Note: The CDC’s No Sail Order for Cruise Ships was lifted on October 30, 2020; a Conditional No Sail Order remains in effect until November, 2021, unless otherwise rescinded.) And he doesn’t think seven port calls in a summer will create conflict with industrial uses at the dock.
In addition to modifying the fender system to accommodate a large passenger vessel, park director Garry White said the board will have to develop a port security plan for passenger traffic at the dock, and a fee schedule.