Sea Trialing Alaska

While the glaciers, waterfalls and wildlife command the bulk of the camera time, the 49th state’s people are what impressed this writer.

The beauty of Alaska is that its beauty isn’t limited to national and state parks. Examples of it, including icebergs and bergy bits, can be found everywhere, as the crew of Knot Wafflen’ discovered.

Perhaps it was the broad grin on the face of the man I was talking to, or maybe it was the uncomfortable look on my own visage that gave us away, but either way, I knew then that I’d been set up.

We were in Petersburg, Alaska, and I was discussing the Aspen C120 hull design with a father who was working on his boat and keeping an eye on his three small children fishing from the dock. He drew my attention to a beautiful young blonde woman walking down the dock.

“How would you like to be trapped for three weeks on a boat with someone like that?” He asked.

I allowed as how that wouldn’t be difficult to take. The woman continued down the dock, approached him and gave him a kiss. He then, with a big smile on his face, introduced her as his wife. She was perceptive, read the discomfort on my face, and whirled around to her husband with the accusation. Clearly, this was not the first time he had “bragged on his wife” in this manner. I did, however, note a slight grin on her face as she got on their boat.

It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, my eyes (and ears) had been opened to a trait common to so many folks in southeast Alaska: their sense of humor.

Five days in southeast Alaska, arguably the best cruising grounds in the United States, is something marine writers usually only dream about — but dreams can come true! There is, of course, always a downside to a test that long in that location. One has to get over gawking at the magnificent scenery and the glaciers and the massive icebergs, fight through the fabulous halibut fishing and remember why he’s there — to test hull #8 of the largest vessel in Aspen’s product line, its 40-footer, the C120.

A five-day boat test, as the boat runs south from Juneau to Ketchikan, a distance of about 300 miles — roughly 3 percent of the distance the boat will cover during its 10,000-mile tour from Seattle to Maryland (via Alaska) by next October — provides a unique opportunity to see how a boat performs in actual cruising conditions. It also provides an opportunity to test some other Alaska-based assertions, for science and the benefit of humankind. Does glacier ice really last a lot longer in drinks than “normal” ice? Spoiler alert: It does!

The outdoor space on the Aspen C120 includes a large cockpit and swim platform, a seat cushion that makes the bow sociable and a flybridge for six to eight people. An all-day cruise speed of 17 knots means the boat can cover a lot of water when called for.

The Aspen is a patented, powered proa catamaran whose starboard hull is 35 percent larger, volumetrically, than the port hull. It has only one engine, situated in the stern of the starboard hull, which is accessed via hatches in the cockpit.

Experience has shown that one of the more useful features on any good cruising boat is its ability to operate slowly while remaining quiet and efficient. Boaters, even after a long cruise, often note they spend far more time at slow speeds than at higher speeds, whether they’re picking their way around and through rock piles while stalking fish or avoiding icebergs and “bergy bits” when cruising southeast Alaska.

The Aspen 40 scores at the top of the heap when it comes to its ability to move slowly, efficiently and quietly. At about 1100 rpm, the 435 hp computer-controlled common-rail Volvo Penta D6 gets 10 mpg, while making 8 mph, something unheard of in any other three-stateroom 40-footer. At that speed our decibel meter read 68. A normal conversation is 70. The quietness of the vessel is a tribute to Aspen’s unique design and noise-abatement protocols.

Crewmembers (l. to r.) Roger McAfee, Nick Graf and Norris Comer take a deserved break from life on the water, and the boat itself takes a break and enjoys some time on shore power.

I have cruised for weeks in the Caribbean and the Florida Keys, through Panama and up the West Coast of the United States, on more than one occasion, but I have never seen more beauty and more variety than in southeast Alaska. It is, without a doubt, the best cruising area in the U.S. Colleagues of mine who have delivered vessels to and from various locations around the world have reached the same conclusion.

A traditional cruising story discusses the various beauty spots in the cruising area. In southeast Alaska there is natural beauty everywhere. A traditional cruising piece notes pubs and restaurants in the cruising locations. In southeast Alaska, each of the towns we visited had plenty of restaurants and drinking establishments, usually within walking distance of the marinas. What really sets southeast Alaska apart as a unique cruising area are its people. All of the local people we met were friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. Boaters are generally friendly and helpful if other boaters need a hand, but residents of southeast Alaska seem to have turned that helpfulness into an art form.

The helpfulness started during our first full day in Juneau when we met a resident charter operator who was happy to share his local knowledge with us. Our skipper mentioned he had been trying to arrange an engine oil change for the Aspen but all the mechanics he had talked to were busy. The charter operator made a quick phone call to one of the mechanics he uses to maintain his charter fleet and arrangements were made to have the oil change done at about 7 o’clock that evening. Remember, there are about 20 hours of daylight in Alaska at this time of the year (June). The mechanic showed up at the appointed time and brought not only the necessary pump but also filters and oil.

Another important feature of any good cruising vessel is good visibility, and Aspen’s 40-footer excels in that category. From the helm seat the skipper can easily see anyone in the deckhouse, on the foredeck and sidedecks, and in the aft cockpit. Visibility like this makes the C120 a great fishing machine.

Traditionally, anglers, even when they’re using rod holders, have to be in the cockpit, and in the Pacific Northwest and southeast Alaska it is known to rain — a lot during certain times of the year. During our cruise, when bottom conditions looked promising, we drifted slowly over reefs and near drying rocks, with a halibut rig deployed and the rod in a transom holder. We sat comfortably inside the deckhouse with a nice warm cup of coffee, chased by a hot glass of Jamison’s scotch, and we could see the rod, so we knew when a fish struck and the reel started singing. One such effort yielded a 35-pounder.

In Skagway, Brandon Holmes gives a bronze dog a nice pat on the snout.

We left Juneau and made our way south toward Petersburg, where we had to pick up another passenger. Since Petersburg, known as Alaska’s Little Norway, is a town that still makes its living from the sea, fishing boats of all types were everywhere. Petersburg employs two harbormasters, and they very efficiently directed us to an open transient slip. The harbormaster’s office operates 24 hours a day, and they were happy to provide “local knowledge” in the area of marine parts and service, something that saved us hours.

While Larry and Nick Graf, the father and son proprietors of Aspen Power Catamarans, were foraging for parts, I wandered into the town’s business district to look for a pharmacy. I was obviously lost. A couple of local residents noticed my confusion as I looked up and down the street and came to my rescue.
“You look lost. Can we help?

When informed of my quest, they pointed to a sign about two blocks away. When I entered the pharmacy, the staff was helping many other customers. After a few minutes it was my turn at the till, and I explained that my medication was Canadian and I wasn’t sure what the U.S. equivalent was.

“No problem,” said the staff member, who typed a few words into her computer, went to one of the bins and came back to the till. “This is the same,” she said with a smile. As I paid, I noted the cost was much less than I paid in Vancouver.

The friendliness and helpfulness were not limited to Petersburg. It was evident in every town we visited: Juneau, Petersburg, Wrangell and Ketchikan. If we had any questions as we cruised along, a quick VHF marine radio call brought answers from boaters in radio range. This helpfulness is another advantage to boat owners who want to safely cruise southeast Alaska in their own boat.

Peter Robson and Holmes pose after stopping a runaway train (not really).

We discovered, almost by accident, another item that makes the C120 a great fishing machine, during a fight with a 55-pound halibut that was slightly more than four feet from nose to tail. Using a dip net to haul in any fish of that size is impossible. The fish will either bridge across the net or destroy it once it’s in. The only sure way to get a live fish of that size on board is to skid it in over the swim step into the cockpit and then quickly close the transom door. If the fish is gaffed through the brain before it’s on board, all is well. If not, all hell usually breaks loose until the fish is subdued, but at least it doesn’t get away, and gear that has been thrashed all over the cockpit can be cleaned and tidied up. The 55-pounder skidded easily up over the swim step and into the cockpit.

From the flybridge visibility was suburb and that’s where we usually operated the boat from when we cozied up to the various glaciers. It made keeping an eye on the hundreds of bergy bits much easier as we threaded our way through them.

Some of Alaska’s non-human denizens are as friendly as its humans.

Larry Graf, Steve Birkinbine, Robson, Holmes and Brian Lind celebrate a safe arrival.

Holmes, Graf and Birkinbine celebrate for undisclosed reasons.

A top location for most boaters cruising southeast Alaska waters is Glacier Bay National Park, but the Alaska Park Service recently announced regulations that will cut down dramatically on the number of private recreational boats that can enter the bay. All small-boat skippers must have a permit that allows for entry at a specific time — and there’s a waiting list! They must observe closures for wildlife and take an hours-long “course” before being permitted into the area. A maximum speed of 8 knots makes it slow going for the 65 miles inside the bay. Local boaters grumble that the park service is caving to the demands of the big cruise ships that have difficulty maneuvering when there are a number of smaller boats in the bay.

For boat owners, not being able to access Glacier Bay is not a problem. There are glaciers and spectacular waterfalls everywhere, and Tracy Arm — where boaters can maneuver right up to the glacier face without having to worry about being run over by a 50,000-ton cruise ship — is far more interesting than Glacier Bay. We spent a couple of days cruising Tracy Arm, getting used to cruising among icebergs and bergy bits, and being able to get right up to the glacier’s edge. We were also able to move up close to waterfalls that were entering the ocean after running thousands of feet from a glacier down to sea level. The raw, natural beauty was everywhere.

Another feature of a good cruising boat, and one that many cruisers say tops their list, is a relatively high cruising speed. They want the speed but still want low fuel consumption. Speed is relative, and generally more speed costs more money, operationally. A boater used to moving along at 8 knots could well be very happy if his boat was able to increase that speed to 10 knots. Many displacement cruisers whose optimum cruising speed is 8 knots get 1 mpg at that speed. Imagine being able to cruise at 17 knots and get 1.5 mpg. The 40-foot Aspen operates at that speed and gets that mileage.

Juneau mechanic Mark Brooks can change the oil and make you laugh, as his business card designation HMFIC shows.


Read our prior review of the Aspen C120 at SeaMagazine.com/aspen-c120/.

Aspen C120 Helm

Find out more about the builder and the 10,000-mile tour at AspenPowerCatamarans.com.


Different Boats

What if one wants to cruise southeast Alaska in a small boat but can’t get his own boat to the cruising grounds? Is there a way to do it without cruising with others or with a captain? There is. In Juneau, we met Steve Birkinbine, who owns a company (aukebayadventures.com) that arranges private yacht charters — some on a bareboat basis. Individual boat owners place their boat with him and he arranges the charters. He reports the vessels are mostly chartered with a skipper who is used to local conditions.

“Even experienced boat owners from the south have problems with a 20-foot tide — something common in Alaska — and even if they have a Coast Guard ticket I won’t charter bareboat to them.”

Birkinbine says a skippered 42 Nordic Tug that sleeps six charters for about $1,800 a day, “roughly the same cost as six hotel rooms,” he noted. It should also be noted that there are about 20 hours of daylight during the summer in southeast Alaska, so cruising days are long and provide plenty of opportunity to take in the scenery.


A good cruising boat lets the skipper spend long days at the wheel without feeling beat up at the end of the day. While there is no doubt there are many planing-hull vessels that can cruise at 17 knots, many are very rough when pounding into a head sea of even two or three feet. The Aspen, because of its wave-piercing hull design, slices through such seaways smoothly and quietly.

The layout of the Aspen 40 is comfortable and it boasts first-class woodwork throughout. Its fit and finish are as good as in vessels costing hundreds of thousands of dollars more. Natural light floods the interior through windows and well-placed hatches, making the interior relatively bright and cheery even on dull days. I came to appreciate a unique touch on our C120. In each locker and cupboard throughout the boat was a light that came on automatically when the door was opened, just like a domestic refrigerator.

The humor factor was on display during another scene with a local in Juneau. The mechanic there who changed the oil in our engine finished at about 9 p.m., so we invited him to have a drink. As we talked, we discovered he did marine work but also had a gold claim he worked from time to time. His business card featured his name and the words “Mining & Marine.” Under his name was what I assumed was a university degree designation: HMFIC. I am familiar with most university degree designations but had never seen that one. Thinking that it might be from a local institution that recognized “Mining & Marine” as a combined speciality I was not familiar with, I asked him what it meant. His response: “Head [expletive deleted] In Charge.” Clearly that Alaskan was serious about displaying his sense of humor, in print, to all he met.

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