"One of the 10 Greatest Cruising Grounds on earth is the famous "Inside Passage" that stretches from Olympia, Washington north to Glacier Bay and Skagway, just beyond Juneau, Alaska. Last month our editor took time out from his normal duties and chartered a 42' 1990 Grand Banks Motoryacht from Ketchikan, Alaska through the bottom two-thirds of the Inside Passage to Bellingham, Washington. The 18-day trip covered 700 miles and put 75 hours on the engines. What made this cruise a bit different and also interesting is that it was a "cruise-in-company" organized by NW Explorations out of Bellingham, Washington, with four chartered GBs and one leader GB -- thus it is called the "Mother Goose Guided Flotilla." This program has been going for six years, and our editor reports that it was a first-class operation from beginning to end
Most of the time the Mother Goose flotilla stayed within a mile or two of each other, but it tended to follow closely behind the leader as it threaded its way through the bricks.
Cruising the Pacific Northwest is not for everyone, but for those who like (almost) pristine wilderness unspoiled by anything other than loggers, soaring mountains next to peaceful coves, and lots of animal life, this is the place. Only a few small towns dot the coastline from Juneau south to the east end of Georgia Straits between Vancouver Island and the mainland.
Perhaps most remarkable is the fact that the Inside Passage is truly mostly "inside" and as a result sea conditions are tame, pretty much like an inland lake of moderate size, if not downright dead flat. This is a voyage that can be navigated by most any boat of any size, so even trailerable pocket cruisers, houseboats, and small express cruisers can handle these waters during most of the season. In fact, it is not unusual to see pairs of cruising kayakers loaded down with camping gear making their way through the passage from one end to the other.
NW Explorations has been in business for over 30 years, and today under the stewardship of owner Brian Pemberton it manages 18 Grand Banks trawlers in the charter service. NWE manages only Grand Banks yachts, and all are located on the same dock in Bellingham, Washington, just a few hundred feet away from the company's office. As a sign of its first-class reputation for customer service, NW Explorations is the only "Authorized Grand Banks Charter Operator" in the world. Indeed, the company is on the doorstep of one of the world's great cruising grounds.
As the crow flies it is about 1100 nautical miles from Skagway, Alaska, the northern terminus of the Inside Passage, to Olympia, Washington, at the southern end of Puget Sound.
The Mother Goose CruiseWhat caught my eye in the NW Explorations promotional brochure was the "Mother Goose Guided Flotilla" to Alaska. (It also operates an annual flotilla cruise to Desolation Sound.) This year on May 21st, five boats -- four chartered GBs and one leader GB (the etc. the “Mother Goose”) -- left Bellingham for the trip one thousand or so miles north to Glacier Bay in Alaska, then traveling back south to Bellingham, arriving on August 18th.
The first night out all five the boats rafted up together with the middle and outboard boats anchoring. Note that there is hardly a ripple on the water.
Few people have the 90 days that it takes for the whole cruise, so NWE has broken the voyage into 6 legs, each lasting from 10 to 23 days depending on the leg. Legs #1 and #6 are the longest because they cover the 700 nm between Bellingham and Ketchikan. I chose Leg #6 because it was one of the longest and passed through a lot of areas that I had not before visited. It was also in the month of August which is usually the hottest time in Stamford, CT, my home port.
The FleetThe four chartered boats in the Mother Goose Flotilla were:
*"Inside Passage", a 1990 42' GB Motoryacht powered by twin 300-hp Cummins engines, with three cabins (chartered by yours truly);
*"Navigator", a 2003 42' GB Classic, powered by twin 315-hp Cummins diesels, with two staterooms;
*"Arctic Star", a 2002 46' GB Classic, powered by twin 420-hp Cats, with two staterooms (and a much-coveted washer and dryer);
*"Mystic Eagle", a 2003 52' GB Europa, powered by twin 450-hp John Deeres, with three staterooms, water maker and washer and dryer.
The "Mother Goose" of the flotilla was "Deception", a 49' GB Classic which was skippered by Bill Douglass (a USCG licensed captain) who is a veteran of many Mother Goose cruises. The boat is owned personally by NWE owner Pemberton.
Bill and Cindy Douglass led the tiny flotilla up to Alaska and back without incident and seem to enjoy doing it every summer for NW Explorations.
Good Humor Makes for Good CruisingThe “Mother Goose leader” of the cruise was Bill Douglass, a man who seemed to have an encyclopedic memory for all of the equipment and systems on each vessel, and the idiosyncrasies of each and every piece of equipment aboard the five boats.
Most important, Bill (always Bill, never Capt. Bill) was imperturbable. No problem could be too major to send him around the bend, nor too trivial to merit his personal attention. Indeed, when I once called him over to Inside Passage for the second time in 10 minutes only to figure out as he was boarding my boat what I had forgotten to do to get something working, I was so embarrassed I profusely apologized for bothering him. Bill's response was that if things like that bothered him, he would not be doing this kind of work. He smiled broadly and resumed his rounds of the other vessels in the fleet.
Bill was joined by his bride, Cindy, an attorney who married a mariner, and is now one herself and a cool shipmate who actually enjoys cruising British Columbia (BC) in the winter time on the couple’s 52’ GB.
The sun set in August about 9:30 pm and usually the water was flat calm. The Inside Passage is dotted with hundreds of little protected coves.
The Cruising StaffA naturalist, Emmelina (“Emmoo”) Mojica, was also aboard the mothership and spotted whales, orcas, seals, bald eagles, and other wildlife along the way, broadcasting on the VHF to the fleet the precise location of the critters, along with commentary as to what they were doing and why. “Emmo” also brought the fleet participants up to speed on the history of the towns we were passing, the native peoples along the way, and perhaps most interesting of all, gave us a running commentary on the trials and tribulations of Capt. George Vancouver who explored most of the Northwest coast for the British Admiralty from 1791 to '93. This was interesting stuff, particularly since most of the coast has changed little in the 220 years since he first explored the area. Emmo was joined by her 8-year-old daughter who became the darling of the cruise.
The fifth member of the NW Explorations mothership was 17-year-old Jordan Pemberton, grandson of the company’s owner, who was making his sixth Mother Goose Flotilla cruise as the riding mechanic/dockhand/jack-of-all-trades. There was no task too difficult nor place in an engine room too tight for Jordan. He was always on the dock to take lines and to advise on the current at the dock. Every couple of days he would pop into the engine room to check fluids, just in case the skipper of the vessel had not. (Surprisingly, some skippers don’t check at all.)
Indigenous people have inhabited the Inside Passage coastline for at least 4,000 years and there are indications that habitation went much farther back than that. In 1792 Capt. George Vancouver met First Nation people who lived in large wooden houses such as the replica of one shown above which is outside of Ketchikan.
Conditions in AugustThe Pacific Northwest is famous for its rain and overcast skies, so that was my expectation. In fact, we experienced only two days of rain out of 18, and there were only two mornings when we needed radar for a few hours and even then visibility was a few hundred yards -- nothing like what I have experienced in Maine and in Nova Scotia in August, when one can hardly see the bow of a 50-footer from the helm. Nor was it particularly windy. One afternoon the breeze freshened to 18 knots for an hour or so. But most of the time the wind was 3 knots to 14kts and the seas were likewise tranquil.
It is for this reason that one sees so many small and inexpensive boats in Alaska marinas. Because we have all watched the “World's Deadliest Catch” TV program, it is easy to think of Alaska as a place of perpetual 20’ (6 m) seas and gale-force winds. Certainly it gets rough in the Bering Sea, but the Inside Passage is another matter.
Many in the flotilla came to see whales and orcas at close range and they were not disappointed.
A Paradise for Trailerable BoatsI encourage our readers with pocket cruisers and trailerale boats to consider taking them to British Columbia for some adventurous outings and good fishing.
Unfortunately, access points to the passage are limited because of the mountains and the lack of roads. One of our Canadian readers trailers his express fishboat to Prince Rupert on Canadian highway 16. Prince Rupert is the largest town between Ketchikan and Vancouver. (There are no roads into Ketchikan.)
Other access points to the Inside Passage for people with trailerable boats is Kitimat, taking highway 16, then south on 37. Highway 20 goes over the mountains to Bella Coola. If you can book your rig on a ferry to Victoria, there is a road all the way to Port Hardy, and there are any number of places to launch before you get that far on the north side of Vancouver Island.
This is a male killer whale (orca) close aboard one of the boats. Note the "blow" mist in the air above its tall dorsal fin.
Daily Routine of the FlotillaThe daily routine of the cruise was to leave the anchorage or marina around 8am and power the rest of the day, which usually meant four to six hours of running, depending upon what we found along the way. Most days our traveling naturalist “Emmo” would spot orcas (we saw large pods of them on two occasions, with numerous individual sightings), whales (usually humpback whales, but sometimes other species as well), dolphins, seals, and bald eagles (everywhere). We did not see any brown bears along the way, but one of the guests caught sight of a black bear on Vancouver Island.
Each of the boats was well equipped with navigational gear, including paper charts, chartplotters, radar, and depth finders. Mother Goose was equipped with Nobletec and a large screen display. From time to time Bill would get on our designated VHF communications channel and warn us of a particularly dangerous obstruction. Bill knew the route he wanted to take – and they were usually ones more daring than I would have selected had I been on my own.
Bill likes to take narrow passages (in order to get closer to flora and fauna on shore), and generally the roads less traveled. It turned out great that way. No one ran aground, and we all learned that what can look a bit dicey on a paper chart is often not so bad when you are actually there -- and equipped with a dialed in chartplotter! (FYI -- The whole fleet reported that their chartplotters were accurate for the whole trip.)
Foggy mornings made the trip even more magical. An early riser got this shot in one of the larger anchorages we visited.
Cruising SpeedWe generally motored along at about 8.5 knots, which was a nice balance of speed, comfort, engine noise, and fuel economy. “Inside Passage” got about 1.5 nmpg for trip overall with the twin 300-hp Cummins engines. Fuel was about $1.05 per liter. Total cost of fuel for my boat was under $1800. If you are used to 20 knots this might seem like a snail's pace, but most of the fleet thoroughly enjoyed the rate of travel which gave us all plenty of time to soak up and enjoy the scenery. We all were also happy with the modest hit to our credit cards when fueling up.
One of the reasons I booked one of the longest legs of the Mother Goose cruise was that being used to traveling at 20 knots in my 55’ convertible for days at a time, I wanted to see what it was like moving at trawler speed for 18 days. Could I stand it? What I discovered was that it is not so bad. In fact, on this trip I did not miss 20 knots at all!
What makes the difference, of course, is the passing pristine scenery and seascapes. If we had been traveling down the middle of Long Island Sound at 8.5 knots I would have felt quite differently, I'm sure. Like sailors, enjoying the passage is the fun of cruising at trawler speeds, and there is no need for a mad rush to get to a destination.
For me the most special night of the trip was in Squally Channel. Over 20 humpback whales could be seen at one time all around the large sound blowing and sounding. This picture was taken from a tender at about 9pm. In case you are wondering, the whales have bad breath.
On The HookAbout 40% of the time we tied up at small marinas along the way, and the other 60% of the time we anchored in idyllic coves that were well protected. Sometimes we rafted up and sometimes each of the boats was on their own hook. Either way, there wasn't a single night that the boat didn't seem to be anchored firmly in concrete; such was the nature of the evening havens. In fact, in 18 nights on the GB 42 I never once was awoken by an odd sound, or an unexpected motion of the boat, and I slept soundly (except for the call of nature, or course.)
The fleet ventures forth on another foggy morning with their radars going. The fog usually burned off by noon time. But with radars and chartplotters fog is not the impediment to travel that it once was.
Once the hook was down several of the men would take off in their tenders with fishing rods and crab pots, others took a nap, and still others went ashore or went put-putting along the shoreline in their tenders exploring. Most nights there was a BYOB cocktail party with pot luck hors d'oeuvres.
It was during these nightly cocktail hours that the 19 people in the flotilla got acquainted. The backgrounds of the charter parties were diverse and interesting, including a retired 747 pilot, an engineer on the Hubble Space telescope, and a veteran Microsoft software developer, among others.
The orcas came remarkable close to our vessels. One skipper reported that a humpback whale actually dove under his boat and came up the other side to blow.
Fresh Fish on the MenuAt night several of the skippers caught salmon, halibut, and crabs (there were fishing rods and crab pots on every boat). These anglers were kind enough to share their bounty with the rest of the fleet which then cooked the fish on their propane grills. Some nights we pulled steaks out of the boat’s freezer and threw them on the barbie topside. Four or five nights were spent ashore at restaurants that all specialized in fish.
At night there was usually just a bit of chill in the air, but never downright cold during our time in the passage. The stars shown bright most nights, and all boats were equipped with TVs and DVD players with plenty of selection. In addition, Jordan had a loose leaf binder with over 300 movies and was happy to go boat to boat at night dispensing videos like a local Blockbuster agent. Some people even read! (Happily, from my standpoint, there was no Blackberry connectivity for about half of the passage.)
On the paper chart this passage looked like big trouble, but once there with the aid of the chartplotter, depth sounder and the knowledge that Mother Goose had made through, it turned out to be a piece of cake.
Cost of the CruiseThe cost of the charter for the flotilla cruise depends on which boat one selects as well as which leg of the cruise chosen. For 2011’s Mother Goose cruise, charter prices range from $9,750 for a 42’ Grand Banks Motoryacht on the 9-day Leg #2, (the smallest boat and shortest leg of the six), to $32,000 for a 52’ Grand Banks Europa for the 25-day Leg #6. However, at press time none of the boats were available for Leg #6 in 2011 as all four boats have already been booked. In fact, of the 24 charter legs available (4 boats x 6 legs = 24), 10 of the openings have already been booked – nearly a year in advance! (That speaks volumes about both the reputation of NWE and of the compelling nature of the Pacific Northwest.)
Expenses in addition to the charter fee include fuel, provisioning, dinners ashore, and tips. Insurance is included. Since two couples usually go in on a charter, the cost per charter – per couple -- works out to something like $550 to $650 a day, depending on the size of the boat and the length of the leg. This is roughly the cost of a night at the Paris Ritz in the off season, which is my benchmark cost comparison for first-class holidays.
From about the 1880s to the last half of the 20th century salmon canneries flourished along the Inside Passage. Now, almost all are abandoned. Instead, there are said to be 139 salmon farms in British Columbia.
About NW ExplorationsThe annual Mother Goose Flotilla cruise is only one aspect of NW Explorations. It is primarily a bareboat (GBs only) charter company that maintains and manages 18 boats for their owners. In addition, the company also is in the brokerage business and represents the boats in its fleet if the owners want to put them up for sale. (Several are for sale and you can rest assured that they have been well maintained at NWE. For example, the 1990 GB 42’ I chartered was in terrific condition.)
NW Explorations owner, Brian Pemberton, told me that his company’s boat management and charter program “is not for everyone.” Brian insists that all of the boats be maintained at very high standards which means that there is constant maintenance going on for which the owners must pay. They also must stay at the dock in Bellingham with the rest of the fleet so his staff can keep an eye on them.
Indeed, I was very impressed by not only like-new condition of the exterior and interior of the 20-year old 42” GB I chartered, but also the immaculate condition of its engine room. The bilge was dry, white and so clean I could have eaten off of it. All of the equipment and machinery there was in like-new condition. There was no corrosion or rust to be seen anywhere. I mentioned this to Brian and he said the bilge on “Inside Passage” had been painted the year before and he has a neat trick for keeping bilges dry.
It is exciting to see a humback whale breaching and we got lucky several times during the cruise. They are about 46' (14 m) long and as you can see this one was completely out of the water.
The NWE Yacht Management ProgramThe owners who have boats under NWE management get 60% of all charter income, but must pay for their maintenance as well as all other expenses normally associated with boat ownership. Brian is quick to point out that the charter income will pay for many of the boats’ expenses such as year around moorage, insurance and maintenance, but owners shouldn’t expect a profit bonanza.
Mountains beyond mountains makes the trip through the Inside Passage something special even to veteran travelers.
Having this level of maintenance expertise advising an owner about what needs to be done not only takes a worry off his mind, it also insures that the best and most cost-effective solutions will be implemented. The fact is, it is hard for even a veteran boater to know all of the details of the 30-odd systems on a complex cruising boat, even on a boat as relatively straight-forward as a Grand Banks.
Several times during the cruise dolphins would play in the bow wave of the lead boat then drop back to escort and cavort with the vessels trailing behind.
The GremlinsAll of this is not to say that everything worked perfectly all of the time on all five boats during the cruise. With 30 or more “systems” on each boat, some as old as 20 years, things are bound to go wrong, and they did. But because Bill and Jordan were able to fix most simple problems and could call home base for more expert advice, nothing that went wrong ruined the wonderful cruising experience and fun of any of the charter parties. One outboard engine was laid up but with four others available for loan, it was not a problem. That was the worst of the troubles.
Marine biologists can identify humpback whales by the markings on their flukes. They live to be about 50 years old and they are said to be from 10,000 to 15,000 in the world today.
Is the Cruise for You?Would I recommend the Mother Goose Flotilla experience? The answer is yes, without reservation. In fact, I am looking at my next summer’s calendar to see when I might get in a couple of weeks of charter. In case you are wondering, I paid full fare for the charter and there is no quid pro for this article. In fact, it will come as a surprise to the folks at NWE. As I said in the beginning of this report, the Inside Passage is one of the great cruising grounds of the world, and it was simply on my Bucket List. (I am 66.) Tempus fugit!
Who should make this cruise, and what level of boat-handling expertise is required? The folks at NWE are the best ones to answer that question, but from my observation, one’s sea time is probably more important than on what size of vessel you are used to handling. All of the boats on the cruise are twin screw which means that they are easy to dock for anyone with experience with twin-engine vessels, sterndrives or inboards. Chartplotters make navigation a snap, and with the “mother” available by VHF – as well as in sight! – there is no excuse for anyone hitting the bricks. In fact, in most places the bottom drops away quickly just a few yards from shore, so navigation is relatively easy. (However, NWE has a scuba diver check the running gear and bottom of each boat within a couple of hours of arrival back at Bellingham, just to make sure!)
Seals are nearly everywhere in the Inside Passage but sea lions (above) are not so plentiful. They mostly hang out where salmon are on their way to spawn.
I Want To Be Alone!The disadvantage of being with a flotilla is, of course, that you are not in charge of your route, itinerary, or daily schedule. If you like to sleep late, take off for your own exploration, or just hang out for a day or two when you find a particularly inviting spot, then cruising-in-company is not for you. Our leader, Bill, invited any who wanted to leave the pack to do so, but in fact, that defeats the purpose of the flotilla which is to take advantage of the sightings by the naturalist and enjoy the camaraderie in the evenings of the other people on the cruise, to say nothing about getting the benefit of Bill’s chosen route which is always a bit daring.
If you are like Marlene Dietrich and would rather be alone, we understand that. In that case, you would be better off with a normal NWE bareboat charter and you can go where and when you wish. Sleep late! Stay two days in the same gunkhole! Non-flotilla bareboating will also be cheaper, since you will not have the pro-rated expense of the “mothership” and its crew, and fuel, baked into your charter fee.
For many people the Mother Goose Flotilla is a good way to get the “lay of the land” in the Pacific Northwest, and then they will feel more comfortable cruising in this remote cruising ground solo. Either way it is an experience of a lifetime.
A male orca steams for the one of the boats in the fleet just like a scene out of Jaws. This picture was taken in the San Juan Islands, close to home.
RecommendationI'd say seriously consider putting it on your Bucket List."
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