Voyage on the M/V Tustumena: The “Trusty Tusty”

The M/V Tustumena docked in King Cove, Alaska

On June 4, I departed Homer, Alaska on the boat M/V Tustumena, known by the nickname “Trusty Tusty”, as it headed towards Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian archipelago, a journey of about 900 miles (approximately 1400 kilometers) in one direction. The journey to Dutch Harbor took three and a half days, and then I got back on the boat as it turned around for the return voyage. I am sitting on the boat right now, typing the first draft of this blog post.

As I worked on the first draft of this post, I took this picture of the forward lounge (yes, that is my laptop in the foreground).

Where do passengers sleep on the boat? There are staterooms with spartan bunk beds, but they are expensive. Some passengers who did not pay for a stateroom sleep in the forward lounge or side lounge on the promenade deck. Others pitched their tent on the solarium deck.

A couple of tents on the solarium deck.

Yes, I said that some passengers pitched their tents on the boat. It’s permitted. I considered pitching my tent myself, though I decided not to. These tents are taped down to the deck. A few people who pitched their tents decided to take them down once they discovered how windy it can get, and other tents stayed on until the passengers disembarked.

Inside the solarium.

Where did I decide to sleep? The solarium. Though it is not sealed from the weather, it does have a roof and heat lamps. I was lucky enough to claim the best spot in the solarium. Giving that I have a camping quilt and sleeping pad, I reckon the solarium is more comfortable than sleeping in the cramped benches of the lounges, not to mention that there is a lot less people-noise up there (there is more engine noise on the solarium deck, but it’s effectively white noise).

This is where I slept in the solarium.

There is a restaurant onboard, but the only food I get there is fruit salad (I want to avoid scurvy, and having some fresh food is nice). Otherwise, I eat the food I packed for the voyage or purchase in the ports. There is not just one, but TWO microwaves on the ship which passengers may use whenever they please, for which I am grateful.

What do people do on the ship? Whatever they please, within reasonable limits. People read books. There are books and notebooks one can borrow from the purser about the region where the boat travels. There is a movie theater where they show documentaries about coastal Alaska and children’s movies. Many people, including me, use their laptops, though there is no internet. There are a couple jigsaw puzzles. There are various magazines and brochures for tourists. People play card games. People chat. It’s very leisurely.

A view from the Solarium Aft near False Pass.

And then there is the scenery. Passengers spend a lot of time watching the scenery, taking photos, using binoculars. We occasionally spot humpback whales. Someone also spotted dall porpoises around False Pass.

The “Trusty Tusty” was built in 1963 and is the oldest boat in the Alaska Marine Highway which is still in service. It’s also one of the only two vessels in the system which has stabilizers to reduce the rocking and rolling of the ship. I met a man on the ship who grew up in Sand Point and remembers when the “Trusty Tusty” was first put into service in the 1960s. He was just a little boy at the time. The people who live in the communities served by the “Trusty Tusty” have a lot of memories associated with the vessel.

Passengers crowd around the purser’s counter, ready to get off the boat at the next port of call.

The passages of the ship contain quite a few documents about the ship and the places it serves. There are various commendations for the rescue efforts the “Trusty Tusty” has participated in. Here is an example, from a “Good Samaritan Certificate of Appreciation”:

You are commended for your efforts in assisting the F/V CHEETAH as she foundered perilously close to the cliffs near Porcupine Cove, Alaska. In the early morning hours of October 15, 1989, the crew of the Alaska Marine Highway System Ferry TUSTUMENA maneuvered within 30-feet to the stricken vessel in high winds and rough seas attaching a towline and pulling the F/V CHEETAH and its five-person crew to safety away from the impending deadly rocks. The immediate response and outstanding teamwork exhibited by the M/V TUSTUMENA crew undoubtedly saved both the F/V CHEETAH and her crew.

On behalf of the United States Coast Guard, I commend you for your compassion and willingness to assist those in distress.

J.W Underwood
Rear Admiral, U.S. Coast Guard
Commander, Seventeenth Coast Guard District

Here is an account by a retired captain of the “Trusty Tusty” about a voyage with bad weather.

Multiple people who had been on this ferry before warned me to be prepared for a rough ride. The Aleutians are notorious for bad weather, earning the nickname “Cradle of the Storms”.

We were very lucky with the weather on this run. I boarded the boat on June 4th, and it was only on June 10th that there was enough rocking and rolling that I became a bit uncomfortable – but it wasn’t bad at all. Most days, it was a very smooth ride.

Because the boat is so old, it requires a lot of maintenance, and sometimes its runs are canceled because the boat needs additional repair. That was why the first run to the Aleutians was canceled this year, and up until I actually got on the boat, I was slightly concerned that my own trip would be canceled. They have talked about replacing the boat for years, and the “Tustumena Replacement” is supposedly in the final design phase. However, even if there is sufficient funding – which is a major if, considering recent changes, especially since Alaska’s current governor is interested in defunding the ferry system (as well as many other government services in Alaska – he’s declared his intention to defund the University of Alaska, the government-owned senior homes, etc.) it would take years to build a replacement boat. One passenger I met on the ferry says that he hopes they never replace the “Trusty Tusty” because it is a good boat, and he would not trust a brand new boat without a track record.


A snowy volcano spotted near False Pass.

My voyage on the M/V Tustumena is drawing to an end as my destination port is less than 12 hours away (I’ve been traveling on this boat for almost a week). This boat, and the waters where it sails, have been my world these past few days.

A view near Akutan.

The Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Island Chain were created by volcanoes. I can see the results of volcanic activity on every island that I can see. There is the sea, and then there are the sharp crusts of land steeply thrusting upwards.

A view seen near Sand Point.

The very few trees (there are no trees native to the Aleutian Islands or the southernmost extreme of the Alaska Peninsula) are all stunted. Even though this is one of the southernmost regions of Alaska, with relatively mild temperatures (by Alaskan standards), the islands and much of the peninsula is covered by tundra. This is the result of the severe winds which blow through the region.

Castle Cape, near Chignik

Having been immersed in this world for days, it has become my world, albeit for not much longer (and not at the time I am revising this post and putting it on the internet). At this point in the voyage, floating on the sea, gazing as these volcanoes dressed in bright green tundra and white snow, has become my reality. Memories of all other parts of the world have become mere dreams.

Here is my next post about my voyage on the M/V Tustumena

2 thoughts on “Voyage on the M/V Tustumena: The “Trusty Tusty”

  1. Pingback: Voyage on the M/V Tustumena: The Most Overcast Town in America, Dumpster Chickens, and Other Ports of Call | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

  2. Pingback: Caught by Alaska Politics, Part 5 | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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