Tusty scrambled to get out of port after tsunami warning Tuesday night

Jul 24, 2020

The AMHS ferry Tustumena, shown in the Near Island Channel, Kodiak.
Credit AMHS

In Kodiak Wednesday morning, people expected to see the Alaska Marine Highway System ferry Tustamena make its way up the Near Island Channel. Instead, the ferry was only halfway there. The reason: the ship’s departure from here in Homer had been delayed by Tuesday night’s Tsunami Warning.

The ship was in the process of loading up for its trip to Kodiak when the warning sirens sounded, and the captain and crew immediately began to prepare to head out to sea, according to Captain John Mayer. Not only did they have to go through the steps in their emergency checklist, but there was a truck on the elevator ramp which had to be disengaged. Mayer says he’s proud of his crew’s fast work as the ship was able to leave the Homer Spit and head out to deep water in just 13 minutes. 

“Luckily there wasn’t a tsunami, but out on this spit it’s extremely exposed,” Mayer said. “A tsunami would inundate the whole spit.” 

Mayer says a ship needs to be at least 200 feet away from shore in the event of a tsunami. He says to think of it as a giant rotating circle of energy – and out in open water there’s plenty of space for that circle to rotate, so the waves are only a few feet high. But when the waves break closer to shore, the energy has nowhere to go.  

“When it gets near the shore, that’s when you see the water levels rise and the waves coming in, and you don’t want to be anywhere near that,” he said. “If you remember seeing pictures of the Japanese tsunami and those fairly big ships getting washed up onto the beach, that’s what would happen.  

Mayer said the passengers with tickets on the Tustumena hadn’t yet boarded and were evacuated to higher ground.

Due to coronavirus restrictions, the crew is not allowed to leave the ship while in port, so they were already on board anyway, which helped to expedite the departure.

When the tsunami alert ended, the ship returned to its dock and finished loading up and got underway on Wednesday morning. The Tustamena arrived in Kodiak about four hours late.