Driftnetter switches to tourism

Posted: Wednesday, May 02, 2001

KENAI (AP) -- 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 his 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 fisherman.

The Darby, built in 1987, has seen good times and bad in the commercial fishing business.

But the downs of late have been so bad, and the future seemingly so bleak, See decided to 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 will skipper the Darby while his wife, Patty, will handle the ground logistics in Seward. Both are retired teachers.

As for 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.

To convert the Darby 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 cemented the Darby's future as a tour boat.

Extending the fiberglass cabin aft was an all-winter project. See had help from fellow commercial fisherman Denny Crandall, also of Kenai.

''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 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.

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

Right now, the Darby sits on blocks and jacks in See's yard, its skin a patchwork of primer and fiberglass sanded silky smooth, ready for paint.

Exploring the coves between Seward and Homer on bird patrol during the Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup in 1989 planted the seed of this kind of cruising in See's mind. What put his idea into high gear was looking for an affordable adventure for his extended family a few years ago.

Tourists will depart 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 will travel one-way on the Darby. On Saturdays, a floatplane will meet the Darby in Nuka Bay. The plane will drop off new passengers and supplies for the three-day return trip, picking up those who sailed on the outbound leg.

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

This year, See will offer halibut fishing. But that may change in future years due to the recent North Pacific Fisheries Management Council recommendation to grant charter boat captains individual fishing quotas.

The Darby, named after See's mother, will hit the water with plenty of recreational options for up to six passengers. There is one double berth and four singles in the oak-trimmed salon, two bathrooms, both with showers, and a fish hold.

Two double and three single kayaks will be carried on the top deck, along with a 16-foot inflatable motor launch. The Darby will have halibut and salmon fishing gear, as well as an octopus pot. It carries a crew of three.

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

To reduce noise, See converted the exhaust to a ''wet'' system that goes out at the waterline and installed lots of extensive sound-deadening foam. More than $6,000 went into noise reduction out of the $80,000 he's put into the Darby's refit.

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

Electricity at anchor will be handled by two huge banks of batteries, eliminating the hum of an auxiliary engine.

See is confident the extended cabin will not affect the Darby's stability. The cabin is built of a lightweight foam-fiberglass composite, and the tall mast has been removed.

See expects to be stormbound once or twice a season, and if a storm comes up while the Darby is en route, he says he can find shelter in one of the scores of coves along the Kenai Peninsula's eastern shore.

So far, See says he's about 30 percent booked for this season, June through August.

Clients are coming from California, Colorado, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Florida.

At $750 per person, See figures he needs to fill half of the berths to meet operating expenses. He doesn't expect to turn a profit in the first year.

The Sees have advertised in several Alaska and nationwide publications, but are still learning the ins and outs of promotion. So far, all of their bookings have come via the Internet from their Web site, www.alaskafjordcharters.com.

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