In Alaska, All-You-Can-Trawl

The Ursa Major, a 65-foot trawler with a colorful past, sails Alaska's Inside Passage and Seattle.
The Ursa Major, a 65-foot trawler with a colorful past, sails Alaska's Inside Passage and Seattle. (Photos By Roy Furchgott)
By Roy Furchgott
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 2, 2005

I loved the idea of a cruise -- unpack once, get comfortable, see lots of places. But I hated the idea of cruise ships -- 2,000 people, and at three stories tall, not so much boats as waterfront properties.

It was a case of conflicting desires. I wanted the travel and some of the pampering found on a cruise ship, but without the ship. I wanted good food, but not an irresistible all-you-can-eat buffet. I wanted picturesque ports, but not the commercialized Disneyfied harbors that target cruise tourists. Lastly, I wanted to keep costs down.

What I wanted wasn't really a cruise. It was an anti-cruise. And I found it aboard a homey 65-foot trawler touring the Inside Passage of Alaska.

I started on the right track more than a year ago, when California-based boat company Nordhavn invited me to join a five-day shakedown cruise from Seattle to Victoria, B.C., on a 50-foot trawler. Not like the commercial ones that haul up nets filled with shrimp, but a boat rigged for comfort, based on the same deep, stable hull design the fishing boats use. I liked the boat's deep-hulled stability, and that its leisurely pace didn't disturb wildlife or sailboaters. Despite the work-boat heritage, the trawler was very civilized.

But to re-create the Nordhavn cruise would have required me to charter a boat and skipper it myself, or hire a skipper. Skippering myself was out of the question -- I make Gilligan look like Magellan. I could hire a captain at $250 a day, but that ain't cheap.

Then, scouring the Internet, I found the Ursa Major -- a 65-foot trawler that nearly wound up as salvage. Initially a luxury yacht, the Ursa was refitted in the '80s for drug-running by legendary gangster Meyer Lansky's great-nephew Ben Kramer (who is now serving time for murder). The boat eventually ended up with Seattle physician V. Joyce Gauthier, who got rid of a diesel tank that served as a smuggling compartment and refitted the Ursa for vacation tours.

The Ursa's online brochure promised a luxury cruise at a lower price than you'd pay on a big ship. That was a bit of an exaggeration. The $3,000 (now $3,300) per-person price is higher than the base price of an Alaskan Inside Passage big-ship cruise. But a little number-crunching showed it to be a good deal for someone like me, for several reasons. The company offers a half-price deal to people willing to take an unpurchased berth on short notice, which brings cost in line with the big ships. The cruise lines also tack on extra fees for lone travelers and for trips to shore, hiking, fishing and other activities. At $1,500 for seven days of cruising, the Ursa looked like a bargain.

* * *

Each spring, the Ursa makes a lazy loop, leaving its Seattle winter berth in April and heading to Sitka, Alaska. It shuttles back and forth through the Inside Passage between the towns of Sitka and Petersburg until August, when it makes its way back to Seattle.

An empty cabin showed up in August, so for $1,500 plus airfare on Alaska Airlines, I met the Ursa in Sitka. The seaside town, a 3 1/2 -hour flight from Seattle, is the kind of place whose buildings range from ramshackle to charming. It's also a town with a history. It was here that the Tlingit Indians massacred Russian trappers and their Aleut slaves in 1802. The Russians massacred the Tlingits in 1804.

A sign in the Sitka airport says that top industries are lumber and fishing, and that the town boasts 9,000 residents, 7,040 registered vehicles, 12.5 miles of paved road and rainfall 60 to 70 percent of the time.

Fortunately for me, it was a dry August. We had the windows down in the shuttle to the marina, passing a main street of touristy shops. Though it was early in the day, most were closed because potential customers had been motored back to their cruise ships offshore. A striking bronze statue of a prospector, modeled after William "Skagway Bill" Fonda -- rifle in hand, coffeepot dangling from his haversack -- stands in front of the Pioneers' Home for the elderly. A short walk down the road is Alaska's oldest federally designated park, Sitka National Historical Park, and its nature trail with totem poles from the predominant tribes, Haida and Tlingit. With 12 1/2 miles of road, pretty much everything in Sitka is within walking distance.

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