Alaska Magazine

Published in the February 2012 edition of Alaska Magazine.

Memories of my Grandfather

By Carly Vester

Pride wells up in me as I clip the pale pink M/V Malaspina Visitor Pass No. 5 to my jeans pocket. I shake hands with Capt. Mark Sundt and, as he show me around his ship, my pride grows. Each time Sundt introduces me to a crewmember, their faces light up with surprise and pleasure.

“This is Carly Vester, Capt. Ron Kutz’s granddaughter,” he says formally, pausing to let me see the recognition in their faces.

Some knew my grandfather, some knew of the legacy he left in Alaska and the Alaska Marine Highway System, and all are warm, welcoming and happy to have me on board. I feel like I belong here.

My grandfather, Ronald Kutz, began his maritime career in 1948 on the Washington state ferries. In 1963, he hired on with the Alaska state ferries. When Alaska bought the Stena Britannica from Sweden in 1968, my grandfather and a skeleton crew of Swedes saw the ship through the Panama Canal to San Diego and up the West Coast to Alaska. This ship, renamed the M/V Wickersham, joined the trio of ships that launched the Alaska Marine Highway System. In 1974, a fourth ship, the M/V Columbia, was added to the fleet, and my grandfather became its first captain, navigating it through Alaskan, Canadian and Washington waters until his retirement in 1987.

Ships were still in his blood, though, and after my grandfather retired, he became a sea pilot and a summer cruise-ship captain until the 1990s. He and my grandmother were building their retirement house with a view of the ferry terminal in Kingston, Wash., when he died in 2002. Though I was only 10 at the time, I remember his memorial service befitted a captain, honoring his life as a husband, father and friend, as well as a ship’s captain.

As Sundt shows me around the Malaspina, I come to understand that, although passengers rarely see their captain, the men and women who guide the Alaska Marine Highway System ferries—my grandfather, Sundt and their colleagues, past and present—hold the lives of the passengers in their hands. A captain, Sundt says, must always focus on the task at hand and be ready to react in an emergency. Every captain needs the confidence to run a ship, he tells me, and that often comes from watching those who came before them maneuver through tough spots. Sundt learned under the wind of my grandfather, who, Sundt tells me, once turned the 418-foot Columbia around in the narrow Peril Straits to avoid a tugboat and its tow. My grandfather was always cool under pressure, Sundt says, and he never let the passengers or crew see him panic.

“With this profession there are no do-overs,” he explains. “It’s not like you hit the reset button on a video game. You’re the mast of the ship, next to God, because the safety of all the passengers rests on the decisions that the captain makes.”

The tour of the Malaspina creates for me not only a sense of pride, but also a sense of loss. Because my grandfather died when I was so young, I never really got to know him, nor did I get to see the side of him that the Malaspina crew did. As a child, I knew my grandfather as a gruff, intimidating figure. Yet one of my most prominent memories is of him showing my older brother and me the room we would sleep in when we visited. I remember how he pointed at the ceiling and told us he was going to get glow-in-the-dark paint and put the entire solar system on the ceiling for us to see before we went to sleep. He was gruff, but he was caring. And, from the ferry workers, I hear he had a wicked sense of humor.

The marine highway is part of the lifeblood of Southeast Alaska. In summer, it is crowded with visitors, but the rest of the year its passengers are mostly locals: families traveling to nearby towns or to the Lower 48; high school students on their way to basketball games or other events in the Pandhandle communities.

As I tour the ship, I am reminded of my conversation a few days earlier with Kristy Totten. Totten has been a passenger on the ferry system for 31 years, since she moved from Colorado to Ketchikan for a teaching job.

Totten told me she has many fond memories made on the ferries, traveling with friends and students. Once, she said, on a ferry just outside of Sitka, a call came in for a principal. There was an emergency at his school.

“The ferry system actually stopped the boat and the U.S. Coast Guard came and picked him up—it was amazing,” she said.

It’s hard to imagine a commercial airliner making such an accommodation for a passenger.

As I continue my tour around the ship with Sundt, I learn more of what it takes to be part of this crew and more about the grandfather I never really got to know.

It takes dedication, Sundt says, to lead a ferry system life, with its days and weeks away from home. He says he’s lucky to have an understanding wife and son, and to have the best of both worlds: time on the water and time with his family.

The same was true for my grandfather. In my grandmother, he had an accommodating and supportive spouse. They married young and stayed married for more than 50 years, raising three children while he was often away; it’s a testament to their strong bond that they were able to make it work so well for so long.

Before I left the Malaspina, Sundt put me in touch with a good friend and former colleague of my grandfather, Capt. Erv Hagerup. Hagerup began working on the ferry system in 1966 and retired in 2001, spending his last 20 years as a captain. I ask him to tel me more about my grandfather and his life on the ferries.

In the course of the conversation, Hagerup tells me it doesn’t matter how long you serve or how high your rank, when you end your time on the Marine Highway ships, you will have made a big splash or a little one, but a splash is inevitable either way.

My grandfather made a big splash, and that makes me proud.

From my time spent with Sundt and the conversations I had with many crewmembers ad passengers of the Alaska Marine Highway System, I feel a stronger connection to not only my grandfather, but also to this newly discovered ferry family. I now know another side of my grandfather and feel almost as though I finally got a chance to have an adult conversation with him.

I am proud to be a part of the Alaska Marine Highway System family and, most of all, proud to be the granddaughter of Capt. Ron Kutz.