The three to four weeks before summer charters get going between Seattle and the San Juan Islands are known among locals as Copper River season. The Copper is a rushing, wild Alaskan waterway that runs about 300 miles and forces the salmon that call it home to grow large and strong. Every year, around mid-May, Seattle's finest chefs battle to receive the first shipment, whether their galley is on land or at sea.
It was during this season that the morning air over Puget Sound turned our warm breath into cotton-like clouds on the decks of the Burger motoryacht Katania, but as far as I was concerned, the folks due to visit in mid-July could keep their 90-degree afternoons. I'd gladly weather the week's chill again if it meant indulging in another Copper River King.
The salmon hearty, robust and a little nutty-a lot like the charter experience aboard Katania. She is a powerfully classic yacht with a crew who love to explore and know how to have fun, a comfortable boat ideal for a few couples seeking a trip full of rich, quirky and memorable moments.
A typical charter trip's first run is 77 nautical miles, from Seattle's Lake Union to Roche Harbor on San Juan Island. The seven-to- eight-hour cruise provides a full day's time to get to know the boat.
She's a charmer from the moment you meet her at Seattle Marina, a stunning haven for old woodies that want no part of Caribbean sunlight on their varnished decks and brass fixtures. Here, where white fiberglass megayachts are conspicuously absent, Katania reigns as queen of the classics. Built in 1961 and extended to 100 feet in 1990, her sweeping blue hull sits alongside the 42-foot Monk Torchy built in 1937, the 38-foot Chris Craft G Louise built in 1964, the 33-foot Fairliner Seahawk built in 1966 and the 40-foot converted U.S. Navy shore boat Lady Wilshire built in 1918.
Walking up the dock to board Katania is like a quiet shuffle through nautical history, a reminder that the yacht you're about to charter should be appreciated as more than a mere "home base for the week.
Stepping from her afterdeck into the saloon for the first time is comforting, like returning to a favorite uncle's summer home. Katania's sofa is satin-finished madrono burl with cherry wood trim, offering the look of luxury and the warm embrace of an old friend's hug. Freestanding chairs and chenille-covered bench seating surround a compass rose dining table, offering the option of elegant nights or casual days. Belowdecks, the three staterooms are done in bird's-eye maple.
Everything is made to be comfortable, and nothing is brought aboard that would disturb the yacht's classic charm. That includes the pilothouse, where an original Sperry compass is the focal point of the bridge.
"Clack, clack-clack, clack, the compass tapped, the percussive speed in perfect rhythm with each degree Katania turned as we headed up Puget Sound toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Every knock from the aged, avocado-rimmed instrument recalled the crack of a bat from a radio in the 1940s, but the hum of the Cats below served as a gentle assurance that modern ingenuity was with us on the water.
Modern thinking, it turns out, also was with us, and has quite a bit to do with Katania's existence. She was purchased as the first in a fleet of older, refurbished, expedition-style yachts to be run by Bellevue, Washington-based CEO Expeditions. Company President Bruce Milne recently announced the purchase of a second yacht, the 120-foot Vosper-Thornycroft Kayana, which is undergoing renovations in Ft. Lauderdale.
Milne was pursuing several other yachts in December with a goal of placing a half-dozen or so in less-traveled ports worldwide, such as southern Chile, which he calls "the Alaska of South America. His idea is to offer similar-style charter yachts under the CEO Expeditions brand, with crew members working among all the boats as the seasons demand.
The concept-new to the luxury crewed charter market-is that if a charter guest enjoys the experience aboard Katania in the Pacific Northwest, he can book a trip aboard another CEO Expeditions-run yacht, assured the level of quality will be consistent no matter the destination.
"It's one thing to understand the vision, but it's another to viscerally feel the vision. This is going to work, said Capt. John Grinter, who became Katania's skipper in fall 2001, several months after our charter in the San Juans.
Grinter is like every other Katania and Kayana crew member we interviewed during the past year in that he truly enjoys life on the water and has a personality that fits well with the laid-back style of charter CEO offers. Grinter's first boat was a 12-foot Styrofoam sailboat hull he converted to a dinghy with a 2 hp Evinrude, and he spent most of his teen-age days nosing around Biscayne Bay and bonefishing from a 14-foot aluminum skiff.
In Katania, he finds the same relaxing, intriguing style of adventure. It's just on a bigger scale, and he gets to share it with his guests.
"For me, the big boat is the way to get to the fun places, Grinter said, adding that some "ugly anchorages offer the best kayaking in the land. "You have to scratch the surface, he said, smiling.
The same mentality is embodied in engineer/mate Sandy Whyte, a bald-shaven Scotsman who is charming when guests need to be charmed, but who is also readily available for anyone who wants to savor a few pints and bawdy laughs after a day of exploring in town. Whyte doesn't go belowdecks for a nap; he "heads down for a wee bo peep. When the chef prepares a five-star dinner-lamb with roasted turnips, apples, carrots, potatoes, broccoli, tomatoes, mushrooms, capers, garlic, pickled ginger and sage, with coconut-milk chocolate ganache for dessert-that leaves guests' eyes rolling back in exhaustion, Whyte would say the chef "really knows how to get women into bed.
No such one-liners flew the first day aboard, of course, as the crew and guests became friends. Katania continued up Puget Sound toward the locks, a classic among crabbing boats and fishing vessels with the monikers Gladiator and Dominator screaming from their hulls in bold, white letters.
Katania's pilothouse is a well-designed perch for taking in the sights, with a long, bench-style seat and dinette that make chatting with the captain easy during long cruising stretches. There are a good amount of those getting to and from the San Juans, so antsy children might best be left behind. The trip is better-suited for adults who might enjoy cocktails and conversation while attempting to spot local Orca pods in the backdrop of the snow-capped Olympic Mountains.
Once in the San Juans, guests will find the quaint harbors as romantic and charming as Katania herself. Roche Harbor, for instance, is an adorable spot with shops and boutiques, a hotel, a bar and a fine restaurant whose white Yamaha player piano occasionally belts out the theme to Gilligan's Island.
For those seeking a bit more civilization, Victoria, British Columbia, is within a day's cruise. The city is home to gourmet restaurants, fine shops, Clydesdale-drawn carriages and all the moose-and-maple-leaf souvenirs a tourist could want. The Butchart Gardens are well worth a visit, even if gardening isn't one of your passions. The 50 acres of wild color and stunning scents include a sunken rose garden, dozens of ponds and elaborate fountains. Fireworks light up the gardens on Saturday nights during the peak summer season.
That's one reason to charter in the Pacific Northwest during the warmest part of the year, but my money is still on pre-season as the winning ticket. Copper River salmon are only available for a few weeks and are much too easy to miss.
Thankfully, Katania is more readily available. She and her crew can fill your hearty, robust and nutty cravings all year long.
Contact: CEO Expeditions, (425) 460-4100; fax (425) 455-4338; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ceoexpeditions.com, or any charter broker. Katania charters at $29,900 per week for six guests, plus expenses.