State officials have closed shipboard bars to save money on labor costs, creating a summer of discontent for ferry travelers.
For decades, the ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway System have been home to gloriously quirky bars.
As the ferries, 11 of them now, make their runs along Alaska’s vast coast and along the Inside Passage, north from Bellingham along the B.C. coast, they carry all manner of passengers, from fishermen, oil workers, military personnel and sightseeing travelers to big fans of the ferries’ communal watering holes.
The bars came with names like the Pitch & Roll aboard the Tustumena, and some had deliciously divey décor, as on the Columbia: shiny lamé wallpaper, gold Naugahyde booths and dimmer bulbs across the ceiling.
But the bars are no more. In April, faced with a $3.5 billion budget deficit due to falling oil revenue, state officials shuttered the last of the bars on the six ferries that had them.
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During summer’s high travel season, travelers wanting to wet their whistles on long journeys (some as long as four days) have had to make do by brown-bagging it in their staterooms — a luxury not enjoyed by the many ferry passengers who sleep in tents on the deck or in deck chairs or observation lounge seats to save money.
The only other authorized option for alcohol consumption is to order single-serve boxed wines and bottles of beer in cordoned-off areas of ferry cafeterias, which are often bustling with kids.
In the Lower 48, where the sun rises and sets at logical intervals, the ferry-bar closings might not sound like such a drastic move. But bar culture is hugely important in Alaska, and fans of the ferry bars are bemoaning the end of an era that lasted for more than a half century.
“When the world is driving you to drink, you need a place to drink!” joked Tony Tengs, 61, the ferry system’s most senior bartender. In late March, aboard the Malaspina, Tengs took his final run.
“The real secret is that people don’t come to a bar to drink,” he said in a more somber reflection. “They come to connect. I remember after 9/11, when planes weren’t flying, everyone was piling onto the ferries. The bar was packed. I was sloshing the sauce all day long. It was so important; everyone was so distraught.”
Officials say closing the ferry bars will save the state more than $750,000 a year because of high labor costs. They say they must do so to preserve a ferry service covering 3,500 rugged miles. Longtime bartenders dispute that cost-saving figure and argue that the bars pay for themselves, especially in the summer months when the ferries are packed.
Regardless of the dueling spreadsheets, though, two things are certain: The bars are no longer open for business, and no one is happy about it.
“It’s just so un-Alaskan to get rid of the bars,” said Capt. John Falvey, the general manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System. “We’ve taken a lot of heat for it, too. We’ve heard it all: ‘Only in state government can you lose money with bars’.”
Jeremy Woodrow, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said summer ridership figures on the marine-highway system have not been fully tallied, but that they appear to be “consistent with previous years.”
But some ardent ferry fans said they have been rethinking their travel plans now that the bars are closed.
“I was going to bring a group of Europeans over and get staterooms for everyone,” said Ken Roberts, 64, from Prince of Wales Island in Alaska. “It’s a nice ride if you can socialize and have these amenities, but now we’ve just decided to fly instead.”