SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

The 'Wickersham' sailed on after leaving Alaska



October 11, 2006

Editor' Note: In the three months since Dave Kiffer wrote about the MV Wickersham in a history of the Alaska Marine Highway System (SITNEWS July 7, 2006) he has received numerous queries about what happened to the ship that was such an interesting footnote to the AMHS. Here is his update.

Ketchikan, Alaska - Although the MV Wickersham was only part of the Alaska Marine Highway System for five years, many locals still fondly recall its stately figure cruising the Inside Passage.

Unlike the original three mainline state ferries that were specifically built for the inside waters between Prince Rupert and Skagway, the Wickersham was originally built to ply the open ocean and the rugged waters of the European North Sea. It was also designed with stylish passenger amenities that wouldn't be seen in this area until the larger cruise ships started arriving the 1980s.

With its prominent narrow bow, large space age solarium and dramatically swept back smoke stack, the Wickersham always looked like it was charging ahead at full speed. Even when it was tied to the dock.

jpg M/V Wickersham

Alaska State Ferry Wickersham in Tongass Narrows
Photographer: Morgan's Photos
Donor: Ketchikan Daily News, Photograph Courtesy Ketchikan Museums

Basically, the Wickersham was a stop-gap measure as the Marine Highway evolved from a Panhandle run to a Seattle to Alaska run.

"Up until the late summer of 1967, the British Columbia ferry system had operated ferries from Seattle to Prince Rupert, feeding traffic for the Alaska ferries up the inside passage," Stan Cohen wrote in his 1994 book 'Highway on the Sea.' "But in August, the MV Queen of Prince Rupert ran aground, leaving only one active ferry between the two ports. Shortly afterwards, a rock slide blocked the Alaska Highway, stranding passengers along the route."

State officials looked for ways to immediately alleviate the problem, but were stymied because federal law certified the partially exposed waters between Prince Rupert and Seattle as oceangoing and none of the existing state ferries could legally transit "oceangoing" waters.

Gov. Walter Hickel took a risk and sent a ferry to Seattle, while at the same time asking the federal government to reclassify the route as inland waters. The government agreed but that still left the state without ships that could transit the exposed waters comfortably.

It would take several years and several million dollars to build a new open-water designed ferry, but the expansion of service was needed immediately. Alaska began looking around and found a year old passenger and car ferry available in Europe, the Stena Britannica.

But buying foreign had its price, Cohen wrote.

"The major problem was a 1920 law passed by Congress called the 'Jones Act,' Cohen wrote. "It simply stated that to carry US goods between US ports, a ship must be built and registered in the US and have a US crew."

The Jones Act had been passed for protect US shipbuilders and carries, but had since outlived its usefulness and now created a hardship for places like Alaska and Hawaii, Cohen wrote. In later years the same law would be the reason that the majority of cruise ship trips to Alaska started in British Columbia rather than Washington state.

The 363-foot , 1,300 passenger ferry Stena Britannica had been built in 1967, as the second of a pair of sister ships built for a new Kiel-Gothenburg service started by Stena Line. Her sister was the Stena Germanica delivered in the same year, and both were built by A/S Langesunds Mek, in Sandefjord, Norway, according to the Viking Line history website (the Viking Line later operated the ship) When Stena Britannica was delivered, it was considered too soon to add a second ship to the Kiel-Gothenburg service. Stena Britannica was used between Gothenburg and Frederikshavn for 4 months, before being sold to the State of Alaska in April 1968.

The purchase cost was just under $7 million dollars and some state newspapers drew an unflattering comparison to the 1867 Alaska Purchase price of $7.2 million. But state officials countered that construction estimates for a new oceangoing ferry were more than $10 million with a four year design and construction timeline.

In an interesting coincidence, BC ferries purchased another Stena Lines ship, the Stena Danica, shortly after Alaska purchased the Britannica. The gracefully built Stena Danica was eventually renamed the Queen of the North and served on the Port Hardy to Prince Rupert run until March of 2006 when it sank after hitting a rock south of Prince Rupert.

The Stena Britannica was renamed the Wickersham after pioneer judge and political figure James Wickersham and re-registered in Panama. State officials then petitioned the federal government for a permanent waiver of the Jones Act.

They expected the government to quickly agree to the waiver as it had quickly agreed to reclassify the waters between Seattle and Prince Rupert earlier. But that had been an administrative decision and the Jones Act waiver would have to go before Congress. Although the shipbuilding interests were no longer a major political force, they retained enough muscle to block attempts to waive the law.

From 1968 to 1972, the ship would only operate between Seattle and Alaska ports if it stopped in Prince Rupert on the way. It also had a complicated bow loading system that limited its Alaska service to Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka and Haines.

The Wickersham also had a deep draft that made it impossible to traverse shallow areas like Peril Strait near Sitka. As a result, it had to approach Sitka from the open ocean on the outside of Baranof Island. Fortunately it was an excellent sea boat and could handle the rough winter seas in outside waters.

The Wickersham was also popular with passengers because - although it did not have luxury accommodations - its staterooms and common areas were much "spiffier" than those of the more utilitarian Alaska ferries.

State officials also boosted interest in the new ferry by offering special cruises such as one around Revillagigedo Island as well as the first state ferry visit up Portland Canal to the communities of Hyder, Alaska and Stewart, B.C.

After four years of lobbying, the state government finally received a temporary waiver of the Jones Act, but only because it had already started to build the Wickersham's replacement, the MV Columbia.

When the Columbia went on line 1974, the Wickersham was sold to the British Sally Line and was renamed the Viking 6 (photo). Her AMHS blue hull was repainted bright red and she was used on the Stockholm to Helsinki run from 1974 to 1980.

From 1980 to 1982, she was chartered to Brittany Ferries, painted mostly white, and called the Goelo (photo), serving on the Portsmouth to St. Malo run. She briefly returned to the Sally Line in early 1982 was renamed the Viking 6, painted red, and served on the Ramsgate to Dunkerque run.

Then in December of 1982, she was sold to the Cypriot-based Sol Lines, painted yellow, and operated as the Sol Olympia (photo) between Venice and Haifa. But Sol Lines went bankrupt in 1985 and the ship reverted to Sally Lines once again where she was renamed the Viking 6 and painted red once again.

In 1986, the ship was acquired by Moby Lines and renamed the Moby Dream (photo). The red hull went away for good and was replaced with a mostly white color punctuated by a large blue whale on the hull. She served that line mostly around Italy and Sardinia until 1994, when she was transferred to the subsidiary line Sardegna Lines. She kept the blue whale but her name was changed to the Sardegna Bella.

In 2001, the 34-year old ship that Alaskans remember as the Wickersham was sold and scrapped in Turkey (photo).


Photographs of the Wichersham including a photograph of her scrapping in 2001:

Viking Line Ferry Postcards


Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2006

Post a Comment
        View Comments
Submit an Opinion - Letter

Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska