Bridge Tour of the MV Colombia

When I took the Alaska Marine Highway System (Alaska Ferry) to Alaska and back one of the things I got to do was a bridge tour.  I got behind the scenes and met the folks “running the ship”.  I first took the tour on my way to Alaska, but as some of you already know I lost all of the photographs taken during that part of my trip.  Luckily, I was invited to take the bridge tour again on my way home.  The first time the tour included an older gentleman who consumed the majority of the Pilot’s time and therefore I didn’t learn a whole lot (but the view was great).  The second time was fantastic.  Not only was the couple (Jane and Jim) on the tour with me great, but the Navigator really seemed to enjoy giving us a tour.

MV Columbia Facts

The MV Columbia was built in 1974.  It’s 418 feet long, is crewed by 66 Alaska state employees, and carries approximately 600 passengers and 134 vehicles (even a few shipping containers and motor homes) .  The vessel was practically empty during both of my trips.  On the way north there was approximately 225 passengers and on the way south there was around 300.  The south route declined to only 205 between Ketchikan and Bellingham.

For more detailed vessel information click here.

Bridge Crew

There is always at least two crew members on the bridge at any one time.  During the first tour it was the Pilot and a Helmsman; during the second tour it was the Navigator, a Helmsman, and an Intern.

Both the Pilot and Navigator gave direction and observed both the other crew and what was happening outside.  The Helmsmen handle the wheel.  Every direction the Pilot or Navigator gave to the Helmsman, the Helmsman repeated it back to them.  Although a lot of navigation is done with electronics, they still use paper charts.  The intern kept track of those charts…switching them out as different areas were entered.


My first bridge tour was “boring” when it came to navigation.  Most times they schedule the tours when there isn’t a lot of action, but my second tour was right before a “sharp” turn to head towards Sitka (notice the upcoming turn in the second photo below).

Navigator Jim Showing us the RouteNavigationNavigation


The bridge crew worked six hours on and then six hours off while on board.  I heard a bit ofConstant Vigilance grumbling that six hours is really not enough time to unwind, get something to eat, and then sleep.  Although I heard this, the crew I met working that schedule all seemed chipper and never looked overly exhausted to me.  <Thank goodness…otherwise I would have been concerned.>

Other crew, such as kitchen and service staff, worked twelve hours on and then twelve hours off.  I heard much less grumbling about that shift.

The Helmsman position is interesting.  They only “steered” in one hour shifts.  When not “steering” the vessel, they did many other tasks.  I saw these folks doing everything from helping load cars to watchman duties.

What a Navigator Does to Unwind…

I was pleasantly surprised when I walked by the piano bar and saw the navigator “tickling the ivories”.  He was quite good.

How to Get a Bridge Tour…

The short answer is…just ask.  Bridge tours are not advertised.

I was sitting near the Purser’s desk when they paged a father and son.  I couldn’t really hear what they were saying, but I thought I heard the words “bridge tour”.  Later in the day, I approached the Purser to ask if they gave bridge tours and he said “yes”.

Before anyone is selected for a bridge tour,  a driver’s license copy and a written statement with a reason the tour is wanted is required.  I just wrote that I was very interested in understanding who the “behind the scenes operations work”.  I guess that was enough.

Allowing someone to participate in a bridge tour is completely up to the lead crew member.  One of the Purser’s told me some lead crew members really enjoy giving tours and others do not, so it’s a bit of a crap shoot.  I got lucky twice.

View from the Bridge

Bridge View