He built it, and now they’re coming. Sitka’s private cruise dock doubles passenger numbers by 22


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Chris McGraw stands between the two Panamax-class cruise ships docked at his dock on September 1, 2021. A family business in practice, as well as on paper, McGraw, his 12-year-old son, his father Chuck, and an employee of the shipyard were all working as longshoremen to moor the huge ships when they arrived earlier in the morning. (Photo KCAW / Tash Kimmell)

Assuming the pandemic is driving a better course next spring, Sitka is preparing for a record cruise season in 2022, with oworm 400,000 passengers are expected to visit the community.

This number is more than double that which happened in 2019, the last full season, and about 100,000 more than the previous record.

The reason for the big jump is twofold: more and more large ships are entering the market from Alaska, and Sitka now has a place to put them.

Robert Woolsey of KCAW recently visited the new Sitka Sound cruise terminal with its owner, Chris McGraw.

Ten years ago, a private cruise ship dock was a dream, frankly. Sitka had two public lighting docks and a three-decade-old system for bringing cruise passengers into town on the ships’ own dinghies.

Chris McGraw and his family had a shipyard, on land that faced deep water. Why not build a cruise dock? Could James Earl Jones be wrong?

(film extract: The Field of Dreams)

Oh… people will come, Ray. People will most certainly come.

Ray… you’re gonna lose everything… you’re gonna be kicked out.

The field of dreams is now part of American culture, as is the idea that you can build something and that a market will follow. Chris McGraw and Kevin Costner, who played “Ray,” the Iowa farmer who saved his farm by building a baseball field, have more in common than you might think.

“We built the wharf in 2011 and went the first year without a single customer,” McGraw said. “The second year we managed to attract one of the very small lines and had less than 15 moorings. And it grew very slowly over the next three years. And all the while the bigger ships were still bidding and you see them anchoring downtown, and we’ve got a nice empty dock. ”

It is no longer empty. Just below us are two Panamax class cruise ships docked, the Serenade of the Seas and the Nieuw Amsterdam. They tower over McGraw’s Wharf like office buildings in New York City.

It wasn’t until 2015, after three years of knocking on doors and attending cruise conferences, that McGraw got the first Holland America ship to dock here. And that was the proof of concept he needed to transform his Field of Dreams into a 40,000 square foot, wood and glass framed cruise facility.

Juneau-based architects Jensen, Yorba, Wall designed the 40,000 square foot Sitka Sound cruise terminal. The timbers were prefabricated off site and assembled in Sitka. Inside the establishment, a retail store is already open. Coming soon: A bar offering local beers and a seafood restaurant. (Photo KCAW / Tash Kimmell)

“And once they started coming, you know, the rest of the different cruise lines that called in Sitka, I think, saw, ‘Oh, it works! “And really, the apprehension was, since we’re located five miles from downtown, that passengers could see that negatively,” McGraw explained. “And we have received very few negative comments for passengers having to board a shuttle, the shuttle is provided free of charge, so passengers do not pay for it. And actually it’s a 10 to 15 minute ride, and it’s pretty scenic, the traffic isn’t that bad. And I haven’t been sailing a lot, but talking to other people who have ports around the world, it’s very common to get dropped off, not necessarily downtown, where you have to take some type of transportation. to get to the city center. “

McGraw won’t say how much he invested in the terminal itself. It halted construction last year during the pandemic, but resumed when legislation was passed allowing cruising in the second half of summer. A retail store is open, but the taproom and restaurant remain under construction. Although neither the Serenade of the Seas nor the Nieuw Amsterdam are at full capacity, pedestrian passenger traffic moves easily to and from the city center shuttles.

Next year, that fluid system could be put to the test, with more than 400,000 passengers expected to arrive in Sitka, many of them aboard neo-Panamax-class ships like the Ovation of the Seas, which has 4 900 paying customers. In 2018, Sitka only had 158,000 cruise passengers and just over 200,000 in 2019. McGraw’s cruise terminal is contributing to this increase, but it is listening to the interests of the community and Royal Carribean, who bought a minority stake in the wharf. himself.

Room to grow. At 936 feet, the Nieuw Amsterdam is huge, but it’s not the largest of the ships McGraw’s terminal can accommodate. Neo-Panamax cruise ships are over 200 feet taller. (Photo KCAW / Tash Kimmell)

“My hope is that our downtown remains unique, that it is and that it is within walking distance,” said McGraw. “That it just keeps that kind of small town character because, you know, even the Royal Caribbean executives that we’ve had here on a number of occasions, that’s the only thing they comment on they’re doing, you know, this, that feels like real Alaska. And I think it’s important that we keep it. And to a certain extent, I think removing the quay from downtown will help a bit because it already spreads these people out a bit. You know, we can only drive a limited number of people an hour around town, and we were opposed if you had, you know, two berths, right in the middle of town, then you could instantly have 6,000 people walking around.

Keeping those 6,000 people busy doing something other than overcrowding downtown Sitka is critical to the terminal’s vision. McGraw’s touring affiliate, Adventure Sitka, has entered into a deal with Shee Atika, Inc, Sitka’s urban Indigenous company, to build an adventure park with ziplines and trails on 17 acres of leased land adjacent to the terminal. At the other end of the road network, Adventure Sitka plans to pick up boat passengers at Silver Bay and take them to the bottom of the bay for kayaking trips, to a former hunting lodge that the McGraw family has owned for years. .

Family is an important aspect of the business. The McGraws have been under construction for decades in Sitka, thinking big and building big.

When the 964-foot Serenade of the Seas and the 936-foot Nieuw Amsterdam arrived in port this morning, there was not a beefy longshoreman crew to meet them. McGraw, his 12-year-old son and his father moored the ships, along with an employee of their shipyard.

This is the way things are done here.

“It only takes about 45 minutes to moor a ship and 20 minutes to untie a ship,” McGraw said. “So, you know, hiring full-time staff just for an hour and a half a day isn’t really practical, and how hard it is to find help right now. It works where we do it. let’s do.

McGraw says he will spend the winter working on organizing the Sitka Sound cruise terminal, so that each of those 400,000 passengers next summer can disembark and find their shuttles or routes without needing to ask. to no one. McGraw built it, and it looks like they’re actually coming.

(film extract, Field of dreams)

… And it will be as if they were immersed in magical waters. The memories will be so thick that they will have to erase them from their faces …

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