My wife and I had come to Ketchikan, Alaska, to meet up with Capt. Ben Swanson, skipper of the motoryacht Discovery, who runs charters in the wilds of southeast Alaska all summer. He had invited us to join his merry band of crew and friends on his return delivery to Seattle, a cruise of eight or nine or 10 days that would show us some spectacular scenery, he said, and also let us enjoy the charms of his 87-foot fantail motoryacht.
Ketchikan has that frontier feel to it, making it a great starting point. The town’s waterfront is a burly mix of work boats, intrepid cruisers and cruise ships. The cruise ships, huge cities afloat, propel thousands of eyeballs each summer past the natural beauty of the area while simultaneously being the largest blight upon it. Seemingly moon-size satellite receivers perch atop the ships’ clifflike sides, betraying the amount of television viewing taking place on each of their innumerable decks.
We motored away from Ketchikan and the cruiseship docks as fog obscured the views and the rain seemed to drive down harder. No matter, we were able to turn our attention to Discovery. The Callas-designed fantail motoryacht was built in 1931 as Holiday for William Morris, the vaunted talent agent. Her teak house has mahogany paneling throughout and large windows in both the salon and dining room, making her well suited to enjoying the vistas awaiting us on our cruise. Teak decks along each side are under cover, and the afterdeck is enclosed with curtains, all the better to relish the great outdoors.
Belowdecks are four double cabins, a single and a cabin with two double berths. Two shared heads, one with a shower, and an additional, separate shower compartment round out the facilities. Our stateroom was comfortable and clean, if unassuming, and at night, generally the only time we spent belowdecks, we slept well. Soft breezes wafted through the porthole we opened while we swung gently at anchor. Some nights we retired before Swanson had decided to stop for the evening, the thrum of Discovery’s engine and sound of water passing by lulling us to sleep in no time.
Swanson was on a schedule for this delivery, and he wanted to be back in Seattle by Saturday. But he also wanted to show us this part of the world. The beauty of a boat like Discovery lies in the fact that she has her limitations, cruising at nine knots and topping out at 12. In some narrow passages on our route, we would face strong currents, and local knowledge was key to making this trip work. Or rather, making this trip not seem like work, but fun.
And the fun began quickly, as that driving rain begat a piping wind and a fair-size swell. Suddenly we were in nine-footers and listening to crashes from the galley, followed by a sheepish chef Ryan Wheeler coming to the dining-room door to report: “It sounds a lot worse than it is.” The sporty seas continued to get more uncomfortable — this was one of only two legs of our trip exposed to the open Pacific, and we were trying to cover more than 80 miles that first day. Finally Discovery turned into an inlet and things leveled out.
Just as I noticed I was famished, Wheeler appeared with a delightful turkey sandwich with mayo and coarse-grain mustard on multigrain bread. Exactly what the doctor ordered. And as seas calmed down the next day and indeed for the rest of the trip, this was how it went. The most delightful things to eat came out of that galley, always a timely complement to the cool weather of late summer in the Inside Passage. A late-afternoon snack each day meant Asian-inflected chicken wings, or stuffed mushroom caps. First mate Susi Zimmermann would grin warmly at my why not? response to her proffered bottle of cabernet. Dinner brought hearty soups, fresh-baked bread (every day!), entrees like a succulent roast pork accompanied by such dishes as a mushroom orzo to knock your socks off, and fresh pea pods or broccoli cooked to toothsome perfection. Breakfast was fresh muffins or scones, pancakes or eggs.
These were just the selections Wheeler whipped up from his stores. When Swanson would put out the crab and shrimp pots at the entrance to an inlet where we were stopping for the night, or one of us would catch a salmon, the options opened up quite a bit.