Charter boats and fishermen ready for a busy season
The month of May, for some Whatcom County residents, signals the beginning of summer weather. People start wearing flip-flops, bike lanes start to fill up, and pleasure boats dot the bay. The wind still blows, but it’s a warmer wind.
For local charter boats, that warm breeze means business is about to pick up. And for local fishermen, May signals the start of another season of fishing in Alaska. For both, the sea beckons with adventure and fortune.
“I’ve always made my living on the water,” said Todd Shuster, owner of Gato Verde, a 42-foot catamaran that he charters out of Bellingham. Schuster fished herring and salmon in Alaska for years and switched to chartering when he and his family moved here in 2002. “This is a nice way to [make a living] without being extractive.”
By the time you are reading this, Schuster has already left town on a five-week trip through Puget Sound searching for orca whales with a crew of up to 10 undergraduate students. These students are part of Beam Reach, a non-profit organization that works in conjunction with the University of Washington to study the clicks and chortles orcas use to communicate. The crew gathers information using sophisticated acoustic equipment and then analyzes it at a UW facility in Friday Harbor.
Gato Verde, Spanish for “green cat,” is a perfect fit for this type of research, Schuster said, and such institutional charters play an important role in keeping his business afloat. Beam Reach alone will keep him busy for 17 weeks this year.
The catamaran design sits lightly in the water and thus the boat runs quietly and doesn’t interfere with the acoustic equipment when underway. If the wind isn’t cooperating, Schuster can lower the sails and run on an electric motor, which is much quieter and more eco-friendly than conventional diesel engines.
Moreover, since the boat is a catamaran, it doesn’t lean as much as most monohulled boats and helps quell any anxiousness clients may have.
“Anxiousness leads to seasickness, and people get nervous when the boat heels,” Schuster said.
The more charters, the better
In between spring and fall research trips with Beam Reach, Gato Verde is available for sunset cruises on the bay, day trips and multi-day trips through the San Juans. Other boats in Bellingham, such as the 65-foot ketch Shawmanee, offer similar services, but thanks to the unique character of each boat, each business has created its own niche market.
“The more charter boats we have, the more options people have to get out on the water,” said Kathy Beattie, who operates Shawmanee out of Squalicum Harbor with her husband Don. “So you root for each other.”
With a maximum capacity of 46 guests, Shawmanee is better suited to larger groups and the Beatties will often refer smaller groups to other boats. Thus, a sort of jovial relationship exists between those in the charter business.
Don recalls one particular day that could have turned into a harrowing adventure for the crew and guests had it not been for a phone call from Schuster: “It was a flukey day and the wind was coming from the north and then from the east and then the west. It finally settled coming calmly from the south. We had just put up the sails when Todd [Schuster] called me on my cell and said ‘It’s blowing 20 to 30 [miles per hour] down here in Fairhaven. You’d better drop your sails.’ We got the mainsail down just in time.
“It’s not Disneyland out here — it’s the real thing.”
The Beatties have been chartering Shawmanee for 12 years and reached a milestone last year of more than 1,000 guests onboard during the season, in groups of two to three dozen at a time.
“Most of them have never been on a boat and they’re scared,” Kathy said. “They’re thinking it’s going to be like the America’s Cup and it’s not.”
At 51 tons, Shawmanee handles like a battleship, even at maximum capacity. The clean deck design gives guests ample room to walk around without running into lines, and the accommodations below deck contradict the stereotypical cramped boat quarters.
This time of year, the Beatties are busy readying the boat for the high season, which typically runs from mid-June to early September. During that time, the couple offers Wednesday night “chowder charters,” a three-hour sunset cruise on the bay that includes smoked salmon chowder from Boundary Bay Brewery.
The “chowder charters” are a good way for locals to get out on the water and experience a part of Bellingham that not many people see, Don said.
“It’s amazing the number of people who say ‘I’ve never see the city from this angle before,’” he said, adding that most people often bring out-of-town visitors along. “Not very many people leave without a smile on their face.”
Cruising beyond Bellingham
For those looking to travel beyond the rocky shores of Washington’s coastline, NW Explorations offers just the boats for the job.
The company specializes in chartering Grand Banks boats, the Cadillac of trawlers, said owner Brian Pemberton. These powerboats are designed to cruise comfortably at 8 knots and are made for long range cruising. You won’t be able to waterski behind it, but you can make it to Ketchikan without refueling.
Chartering a boat from NW Explorations can be easy, even if you have never driven a boat, Pemberton said.
“If someone doesn’t have any experience, there’s two ways they can go out on a boat,” he said. “They can take the classes and become certified to charter a boat. Or they can go out with a skipper who will help teach and train them while they go.”
And for those who don’t want to venture too far on their own, the company offers guided trips that Pemberton lovingly calls “Mother Goose.” On these trips, Pemberton leads a flotilla of chartered boats from Bellingham all the way to Glacier Bay, Alaska, at the northernmost point of the Inside Passage.
The trip is split into five sections and clients can sign up to go on any leg of the trip, though the spots fill up quick.
“We’re already 50 percent sold out for next year’s guided tours,” Pemberton said. “We have one opening for this season, from Ketchikan back down to Bellingham.”
Beginning this year, NW Explorations will be offering trips to even more far-flung locations, from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands to the Sea of Cortez along Baja California.
In order to reach such secluded locales, the company needed a bigger boat and they settled on the Northern Song, a 78-foot custom-built world cruiser modeled after Bering Sea crabbing vessels.
“It’s a go-anywhere vessel,” Pemberton said. “She is designed to go anywhere in the world.”
The Northern Song will be going right to work, Pemberton said. The ship arrived in Bellingham in mid-April and is scheduled to aweigh anchor May 27.
Turning fish into money
By the time May comes around, local fisherman Dave Mann is usually busy working his way through the Inside Passage and across the Gulf of Alaska to fish for cod and salmon in Kodiak, about 250 miles southwest of Anchorage.
But he’s going to have to hurry this year to make it in time.
“We’re late this year because we’re in the yard for repairs,” Mann said. Last summer, Mann’s 50-foot, fiberglass boat was hit by a 220-foot-long, fully loaded barge. “He didn’t see us until he was 100 yards away. He should have cut us in half.”
After a winter of repairs, though, Mann is back in the water and ready for another season.
Fishing isn’t the lucrative business it used to be 20 years ago, but for those who have survived the ups and downs of demand, the Exxon oil spill in 1989 and the rising price of fuel, there is still something magic about fishing.
“It’s a love-hate relationship,” Mann said.
Mann has been fishing in Alaska for 39 years, most of time as the captain of the Alchemist. If anything were to describe a boat captain, it would be the name of his boat.
“Alchemy was the base science behind turning metals into gold,” Mann explained, “and we’re trying to turn fish into money.”
This year could be a good year for that, even with rising fuel prices, said Jim Zuanich, captain of the Marshal Tito. Thanks to an increasing market for wild Alaskan salmon both in the States and abroad, some fishermen are expecting to receive more for their bounty.
“We’re finally looking forward to decent prices — people are starting to like and recognize wild salmon,” said Zuanich, who fishes mostly out of Petersburg in southeast Alaska. “Four or five years ago we were getting 7 cents per pound for pinks. This year we should get 25 to 30 cents per pound.”
Most fishermen make their money by selling their catch to a fish processing company, which then puts the fish on the market. But a few years ago, Mann decided to eliminate the middleman by doing direct sales. Instead of selling everything he catches to the larger fish processors, he and his wife market their fish directly to local restaurants and individuals.
By refrigerating the fish as soon as possible after catching them, Mann ensures that the fish stay fresh for the ride home to Bellingham. And thanks to Bellingham Cold Storage, the couple can market their fish year-round.
Operating in such a way would be impossible for Mann to do on his own.
“I catch the fish and my wife handles all the business,” he said. “I’m very fortunate that my wife tolerates what I do.”
All in the family
Being away from family for months at a time can sometimes be hard, Mann said, adding that he talks to his two kids every day via satellite phone while he’s away.
As the fishing industry faces new challenges with global warming and rising fuel prices — Mann spent $35,000 on fuel last season — Mann said he isn’t encouraging his children to pursue the life of a fisherman.
“It’s been a pretty hard life,” he said, adding that he has undergone surgeries on his back, shoulders and fingers. “If they enjoy fishing, I’ll help them, but I won’t push them.”
For Zuanich, fishing has always been a part of the family. From his grandfather to his father and now down to his two grown sons, the Zuanich family has spent several lifetimes at sea. In fact, Zuanich Point Park is named after Jim’s uncle Pete Zuanich, a fisherman and long-time commissioner for the Port of Bellingham.
Soon to be 62, Zuanich said he is contemplating retiring from fishing in a few years. It’s a tiring job in a constantly shrinking industry.
“There are a lot fewer fisherman than 20 years ago,” Zuanich said.
Mann has seen the same trend: “In Kodiak, there were 360-some fishermen. Now it’s down to 120. There aren’t a lot of people who do what we do.”
But yet, every spring there is a line of fishing boats leaving Squalicum Harbor chugging north to colder waters. As long as there are fish in the oceans, there will be a need for fishermen to catch them. At the same time, local charter boats are freshening up their decks and booking trips for the warmer months of summer — theirs is the labor of leisure.
And onboard each boat is a captain and crew enjoying the ups and downs of life on the water.
Get out on the water
Gato Verde: 42-foot catamaran. Call 220-3215 or visit www.gatoverde.com
Shawmanee: 65-foot ketch. Call 734-9849 or visit www.bellinghamsailing.com
NW Explorations: Several Grand Banks powerboats and the Northern Song, a 78-foot world cruiser. Call 676-1248 or visit www.nwexplorations.com