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Driftnetter switches to tourism

Posted: Tuesday, May 01, 2001

The F/V Darby will never again haul salmon-laden gillnets out of the icy waters of Cook Inlet.

Owner Charlie See of Kenai is converting the 38-foot fiberglass gillnetter into a "pocket yacht" to ply the coves and fjords south of Seward, laden with ecotourists, kayakers, birders, photographers and the occasional sport fisher.

Built in 1987 by Martin Boat Works of Bellingham, Wash., the Darby has seen good times and bad as the commercial fishing industry experienced ups and downs.

But the downs of late have been so bad, and the future seemingly so bleak, See decided to give up chasing the red salmon and steer the Darby toward new waters.

"I don't want to get political, but the governor has stacked the Fish Board against the commercial fisherman," See said. "It's obvious where his priorities are."

He describes commercial fishing as a lost lifestyle.

"When I started 22, 23 years ago, we were hunters. Now we line up on the line cafeteria style and wind up corking someone or getting corked ourselves," he said. "It's not pleasurable any more. I want another adventure while I'm still young enough."

The 57-year-old See, a retired teacher from Kenai Middle School, will skipper the Darby while his wife, Patty, a teacher retired from Sears Elementary, will handle the ground logistics in Seward.

Their retirement 10 years ago didn't last long, and before long, the couple decided to take winter jobs overseas, teaching at U.S. military bases, first in Japan for three years and then five in Turkey. They are taking two-year leaves of absence, Charlie to work on the boat and the new business and Patty to continue her education in Tucson, Ariz.

As for ever commercial driftnetting again, See said he can't sell his limited entry permit until the price goes up, and he could always fish the high days aboard his son's gillnetter, which hasn't been used in three seasons, he said.

To convert the Darby from a gillnetter to a cruiser, See had to fill in with equipment, or cover, the voluminous fish holds the boat was designed around. Extending the cabin to within a few feet of the stern with the help of fellow commercial fisher Denny Crandall, also of Kenai, cemented the Darby's future as a tour boat.

Extending the fiberglass cabin aft was an all-winter project that See and Crandall worked on almost every day.

"It's been almost seven days a week for six months," Crandall said while applying a primer coat of paint to the ship's deck on Sunday.

He said he understands why See is making the change.

"It's kind of the way things go nowadays. It's hard to make a living fishing now," he said.

He said he wouldn't be surprised if more commercial fishers followed suit in some way.

See says he's on the leading edge of a wave of overnight charters and of commercial fishers turning to other seafaring adventures.

"I think there's a demand for it," he said.

Right now the Darby sits on blocks and jacks in See's yard just off the Kenai Spur Highway, its skin a patchwork of primer and fiberglass sanded silky smooth, ready for paint. Next to the ship sits a small memorial plot displaying the wheel of an old cruise ship that was lost in the fall of 1988 near Nuka Bay.

See salvaged the wheel of the Miki Miki, an old military tug converted to a cruise ship, when he came upon its wheelhouse while on bird patrol during the Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup in 1989.

Exploring the coves between Seward and Homer during that summer planted the seed of this kind of cruising in See's mind, but what put his idea into high gear was looking for an affordable adventure for his extended family to do together a few years ago.

Passengers will depart on Wednesdays from the Seward Boat Harbor for a three-day cruise to Nuka Bay, about 100 miles southwest, as the crow flies. With detours in and out of fjords and the Pye Islands, the Darby will cover about 200 miles each way, anchoring in a different cove each night.

Passengers only will travel one-way on the Darby. On Saturday, a floatplane from Bear Lake Air and Guide Service of Seward will meet the Darby in Nuka Bay to drop off passengers and supplies for the three-day return trip and pick up those who sailed on the outbound leg.

See says it's a unique tour that goes far beyond what the large day trip cruisers and charter fishing boats offer. He said the waters the tour will ply offer untapped red and silver salmon fishing.

While he will offer halibut fishing -- a major draw for folks who travel to the peninsula -- this year, he is not sure if the recent North Pacific Fisheries Management Council decision granting charter boat captains individual fishing quotas will affect his business in the future. He holds 6,000 pounds of commercial halibut IFQs, but he said it may or may not be transferable to his new charter business. The council's plan still needs to be approved the the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

In any case, the Darby, named after See's mother, will be outfitted and ready for anything when it hits the waves this month. It can carry six passengers and a crew of three. It has one double berth and four singles for passengers in the oak-trimmed salon, two bathrooms, both with showers, and a fish hold for the catch of the day.

Two double and three single kayaks and a 16-foot inflatable motor launch will be carried on the top deck of the Darby, and the ship will be equipped with the latest electronics, halibut and salmon fishing gear, as well as an octopus pot.

"We've squeezed a lot into 38-feet," See said.

For passenger comfort during the three-day cruise, See converted the engine exhaust from a "dry" system that had a smokestack above deck to a "wet" system that outlets at the waterline to reduce the noise.

To further quiet the boat, he also installed extensive sound-deadening foam, some of it lead-lined, throughout the engine compartment, around the oversized exhaust and throughout the window-lined cabin. He spent more than $6,000 on noise mitigation, almost 10 percent of the $80,000 he's put into the Darby's refit.

"The big thing people object to is the noise," he said.

Passengers will enjoy the quiet while at anchor as well, since domestic electricity will be handled by two huge banks of batteries, eliminating the hum of an auxiliary engine.

See said he is confident the extended cabin will not affect the Darby's stability, as it's constructed of a light-weight foam-fiberglass composite, and the tall mast has been removed.

He said with its hard-chine hull, the Darby is inherently resistant to rolling. A "hard" chine is an abrupt transition between the side of a boat and its V-bottom hull. It does not roll as much as a boat with a round bottom.

Based on his experience, See said he expects to be storm-bound once or twice a season, and if a storm comes up while the Darby is en route, it can always seek shelter in the scores of coves that dominate the Kenai Peninsula's eastern shore.

So far, See is about 30 percent booked for this season, which begins in June and lasts through August.

He already has clients booked from as far away as California, Colorado, Minnesota, Massachu-setts and Florida, who either want to go kayaking, watch birds, take photographs or fish.

At $750 per person, See said he needs to book at least 50 percent of the berths to meet operating expenses. He said he doesn't expect to turn a profit this year, but expects to in future summers.

They have advertised in several Alaska and nationwide publications, but are still learning the ins and outs of promotion. So far, the Sees have received all of their bookings via the Internet at their World Wide Web site, www.alaska fjordcharters.com.



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