HOPE FLOATS

Local couple’s eight-year voyage of sacrifice and hard work ends with the realization of a dream

Christine and Jeff Smith, right, have neared the end of an eight-year effort to restore the David B, a former Alaskan cannery tender, and turn it into the focus of a new small-ship cruise company, Northwest Navigation. At left is the boat’s engineer, Aaron Mynatt.

Dan Hiestand
   The night before the Ski to Sea race last year, Jeffrey Smith didn’t get a lot of sleep, despite the fact he was scheduled to participate in the 36-mile road-bike-ride portion of the event. Instead of sleeping, he — along with his wife, Christine — spent much of the night making sure their newly refurbished boat, the M/V David B, didn’t sink to the bottom of Squalicum Harbor.
   Earlier that day, the couple had put their boat in the water for the first time after essentially replacing its hull, and that night was literally a sink-or-swim test.
   Several months later, standing aboard the 65-foot vessel built in 1929, it looks like the couple’s efforts paid off — and the boat passed the test.
   “We were up all night,” said Christine with a smile. Such are the plights of the boat owner.
   These days, though, the plights seem to have taken a back seat to the potential of the future: This month, the Smiths, now operating as the Northwest Navigation Co., will take on paying passengers for the first time. The small-ship cruise company will offer customers a chance to explore regional locations such as the San Juans and Desolation Sound in B.C., as well as more distant destinations in Alaska.
   While this is the start of a new business, it’s also the end of an eight-year long effort to restore an aging ship — as well as the realization of a dream.

A floating B & B
   Jeffrey and Christine first met in 1996, when Jeffrey moved to Bellingham after working in the boat industry in Maine, Michigan and Oregon. When they met, both had plans for the future.
   Christine, a Western Washington University graduate, wanted to open a bed and breakfast. Jeffrey wanted a boat. The gap was filled with a question from Jeffrey to Christine.
   “The night that I met Jeffrey,” explained Christine, “He said, ‘Does that bed and breakfast have to have a foundation?'” Thinking back and glowing at her response, she repeated the answer she gave to her future husband and co-founder of the Northwest Navigation Co. “No.”
   And so this bed and breakfast on a boat was started.
   “When I met him, he had this idea that maybe he could build a boat from scratch. And that turned out to be too expensive of a project,” Christine said. So they searched for a boat they could re-build, and found one on Lopez Island in 1998.
   The boat they eventually bought, the David B, was a cannery tender built at the Lake Washington Shipyard in Houghton and used in Bristol Bay, Alaska, for about 25 seasons. Cannery tenders were built to tow sail-powered fishing boats to salmon fishing grounds, and hold the day’s catch before taking it to the canneries.
   After buying the boat for $15,000, the real work started. Initially, Jeffrey thought the boat was in good shape (he said the engine alone was likely worth the amount they paid), and he hoped to commission it immediately for charter work. Soon after he bought it, though, he realized it was going to be a while before it took on any passengers.
   To get it ready for a trip to Bellingham, the couple spent weekends from June 1998 until February 1999 on Lopez, working diligently on the boat using tools and workspace provided by the boat’s previous owner. Weekend work nights were often spent sleeping on the boat’s deck.
   And, as Christine joked, the vessel even came with a passenger: The previous owner was renting to a man who continued to live aboard until the boat’s journey to Bellingham, a situation that worked well because the tenant helped work on the boat and keep watch over it during winter storms. In February 1999, the David B was moved to Bellingham’s Squalicum Harbor, a facility it has called home ever since.

A little help from their friends
   Capt. Michael Mills looked impressed as he descended into the lower deck of the David B. Mills, 56, has been running the Alaska-based Kelly Bay Yacht Charters for the past 22 years, and he owns a 64-foot vessel similar to the David B. He has also been a marina neighbor of the Smiths off and on during the ship’s reconstruction, and this was his first time aboard the boat in its near-finished state.
   When asked what he thought of the boat, he didn’t flinch in his response.
   “I love it,” said Mills. “It was an amazing restoration. It should be dead. It should be on some beach, rotting right now.” The smell of fresh paint, the sound of hammers and the purr of electric saws slicing lumber confirm the David B is alive and well, and very much a boat — a constant work in progress.
   Soon after the couple dropped anchor at Squalicum Harbor, the Smiths built a temporary, white, shrink-wrap cover over the boat (constructed in part with wooden planks given as a wedding present from friends) that remained in place over the boat for three years while it floated in the harbor. It was under this cocoon that much of the restoration magic happened.
   For the couple, this was just the beginning of a lifestyle choice — a complete dedication to a common goal.
   “We actually got engaged the day after we bought the boat, and this was the day our mothers met, so we made them scrape the deck,” Christine joked.
   “It wasn’t just nights and weekends,” said Jeffrey, thinking back to the time spent working. “There were a couple of different winters where I spent the whole winter down here working on it.” The work seemed to be contagious. Family, friends, friends of friends and neighbors were “employed” by the couple, with compensation usually in the form of gratitude, food or a place to stay.
   On April 15, the couple had an open house party at the marina to celebrate the new business and to thank volunteers.
   “If you add it all together, I think I’ve earned at least a few days onboard,” said Cynthia Smith, standing on the boat’s stern next to her brother, Jeffrey. Cynthia was one of a handful of people the Smiths estimated had put in “three weeks to a month” worth of work over the years. All of that work has finally paid off.

‘Our parents hate the water’
   Jeffrey doesn’t look his age. The energetic 38-year-old looked more like a 20-something kid as he talked about his boat’s diesel engine — an antique, room-filling, surprisingly quiet and efficient green machine. You get the impression the Smiths could talk for hours about their boat.
   They could start with the pilothouse and its commanding views through teakwood window frames; or the window-framed galley and the smell of burning apple wood coming from the stove; or perhaps the amenities below deck, such as the freshly painted, cozy staterooms that allow for six passengers.
   However, the fact that Jeffrey became a boat captain, let alone the owner of one, is surprising considering his background. The son of a college professor and a schoolteacher, Jeffrey grew up in Ohio, far away from broad swells of the Pacific or the brisk chop of the Atlantic. He first got into boats after joining a sailing club one summer with his sister, Cynthia, despite the fact that his parents aren’t the biggest fans.
   “Our parents hate the water,” Jeffrey said, nodding along with his sister at the thought. “They’re Okay with us now, but in general they hate it.”
   They liked it well enough to be one of five investors in Northwest Navigation, which officially includes Jeffrey, Christine, Jeffrey’s parents (Kirk and Ann), and 25-year-old Aaron Mynatt, a family friend whose father taught with Jeffrey’s at Bowling Green University. Steven Nourse, a professional photographer, will be aboard the David B during Alaska trips as a naturalist and photography instructor — but is not part of the company structure.
   Mynatt, the ship’s engineer, has been working full time with Jeffrey since December 2004 on the David B, and Christine recently left her gardening business this past December to concentrate on the vessel. While time was a major component of the effort, so was money. Jeffrey estimated the total cost, not including labor — which was done almost entirely without outside assistance — came to approximately $200,000. For that price, the boat and its engine were almost completely re-tooled and refurbished.
   “We tried to do the project on money that we had, and tried not to borrow to do it,” Jeffrey said. Building was a challenge, but he said the hardest part has been all the peripherals, such as planning the business model, setting up a Web site (www.northwestnavigation.com), marketing, and of course, finding customers. Christine even took courses on wood-stove cooking and pastry making to enhance her culinary skills.
   In addition to supplemental schooling, most of what the couple learned about business came about by talking with people who had been there, such as former employers and industry colleagues.
   And so far, they said, things are on track. They plan to be fully operational this month, and already have passengers booked for a trip to Alaska this summer.
   “We’re going to go a lot of places no one else does,” Mynatt said. “We’ll go places where it is physically impossible for a large cruise ship to go.”
   The boat will be outfitted with sea kayaks that sit neatly on top of the pilothouse as well, so that its six passengers can explore coastline nooks and crannies on their own.
   “We want a little bit of the past so people will recognize it as an old work boat, but yet also be comfortable,” Christine said. “I want people to have a really good time and maybe learn something about the San Juans or anyplace we go.”
   If all goes well with the David B, the Northwest Navigation Company may expand the fleet to include more boats. In the meantime, the owners are looking forward to other things, such as the months they will have to themselves in the off-season.
   “In doing this, we get to work really, really hard during the summer,” Jeffrey said. “In the winter we get to have lots of time to sit next to our wood stove and play our guitars, read books and go skiing. We really like the seasonal lifestyle.”

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