A belief that halibut charter boats are too expensive for most Kenai Peninsula residents has led an enterprising Soldotna man to develop an alternative.
W.A. Jeep Hann, the former owner of Chilly Willy's slot cars in Kenai and Anchorage, is using his capital from the slot car business to open a budget fishing platform 3.5 miles off Anchor Point.
"My target market is the local people that can't afford $150 a day to go halibut fishing," said Hann, who also has worked as a Kenai River fishing guide. "I plan to market this at about $80 per day to go fishing. This is walk on, no reservations, show up at the shuttle, come aboard and bring your own tackle."
Alaska's Halibut Island, a 70-foot barge Hann bought last year from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, likely will have some fishing poles for rent, he said.
"We'll have bait and tackle for sale along with food and unique souvenirs for tourists -- shirts, hats. We're hoping to make this a destination," he said.
Once the business is running, he said, he hopes local bed-and-breakfasts, motels and hotels will work with him to offer lodging-and-fishing packages.
Hann hopes to refurbish the barge this winter, bring it to Cook Inlet in the spring and host 5,000 fishers next summer. Six-passenger shuttle boats will ferry fishers from shore, he said. He expects to use at least four shuttle operators. The barge will employ about 25 people with about five on duty at a time.
Hann said he has invested $130,000 in the business and owns the barge outright. However, refurbishing it, bringing it up from San Diego and getting the business off the ground will cost about $350,000. So, he is applying for a loan and looking for investors willing to buy shares of at least $10,000 each in Alaska's Halibut Island Inc. He said he already has found people interested in investing $120,000.
The U.S. Navy operated the barge at Scripps, he said. He has not been able to determine exactly what it was used for, but it has a heavy-duty winch with a reel 7 feet in diameter. There are rumors that the Navy used it to recover nuclear missiles from a sunken Russian submarine.
The barge has electrical generators, a full galley and sleeping quarters for 20 people. It also has a "moon pool," a portal through the hull 15 feet wide and 20 feet long that would allow clients to fish indoors. It was designed for the open ocean and has six ballast tanks Hann can flood to add weight and stability.
"The naval captain who used to be in charge said it's built to take a wave over the top," he said.
Remodeling to meet U.S. Coast Guard rules will cost about $150,000, he said. Because the sides are high, he also plans to build a wrap-around fishing platform off the stern. The barge is 45 feet wide, and the platform will wrap 5 feet around either side. So, the fishing platform will be 55 feet long, he said.
"We hope to be licensed for about 125 people, so we can handle a big party like a wedding reception or a company day trip," he said. "The captain will have a 100-ton license. I have to have four captains, because it has to be skippered 24-hours a day."
Hann said he hopes to convert at least part of the sleeping quarters to a tackle shop and restaurant.
"The first year, I'll offer basic fisherman food -- hamburgers, plates of chili or spaghetti," he said. "Probably the second year, I'll offer high-quality gourmet dining."
He estimates it would cost about $100,000 to hire a tug to tow the barge from San Diego to Cook Inlet, but he said he may buy a tug and tow the barge himself.
"I'll need a decent-sized tug, probably 60 to 100 feet," he said. "I think Cook Inlet needs another towing service."
Or, the tug might be converted to an exclusive six-passenger charter boat for multi-day trips, he said.
The barge has a Coast Guard-approved primary sewage treatment system, he said, and it likely will discharge the treated effluent into Cook Inlet. He plans to grind halibut carcasses and discharge those into the inlet, too.
He said he is working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to obtain a discharge permit.
Hann said he plans to anchor the barge about 3.5 miles off Anchor Point in about 60 feet of water. He said he has been working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He said he does not believe he needs a permit to anchor off Anchor Point.
"I've dealt with the Kenai and Anchorage Coast Guard, and they haven't expressed any problems with anchoring there," he said.
Lt. Cmdr. Eric Walters, chief of inspecting for the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in Anchorage, said he has talked to Hann but does not yet know exactly where the barge would be anchored. It will need a Coast Guard inspection, he said, and once the Coast Guard knows the site, it must determine whether the anchoring would pose a hazard to navigation. The Coast Guard will discuss that with the Corps of Engineers, Alaska state pilots and other users, he said.
Hann is not worried that his customers will fish out the spot.
"We'll move it occasionally," he said. "The fish are moving through there. They move up and down the inlet. We expect to stay on the shoal or in the deep channel off Anchor Point. We'll move probably no more than two miles. Most fishing guides, if they don't find fish, they pick up and move 100 yards to a mile."
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