“Welcome,” Rodger Morris says as he waves me aboard the Cape Ross. We are on Seattle’s Duwamish River, and he is precisely the type of man who dominated the city and its environs before Big Tech moved in.
A professional woodworker, captain and marine surveyor, Morris has already lived a career as a shipwright, and another as a commercial fisherman in Southeastern Alaska. His demeanor is tranquil, and his vaguely wizardly mane of silver hair, along with his calm baritone voice, make him seem fit to read poetry on National Public Radio.
He’s the kind of man I’d expect to find aboard this kind of boat.
The Cape Ross was built in 1952 by Sterling Shipyards Ltd. of Vancouver, Canada, for the Canadian Fishing Company. All wood with a length overall of 67 feet, she spent most of her life chasing salmon and herring for profit along the British Columbia coast. She retired from the Canadian Fish Company fleet in 1999, after making the cover of local trade magazines like Western Fisheries (1956 and 1979). Fortunately for her, Capt. John Dolmage, the previous owner, bought her in 2002 and spared her from the landfill. He began her lifesaving transformation from retired workboat to yacht.
Today, she plies the same rich emerald waters she once did, but instead of hunting fish and profits, she serves her current owner as a beloved recreational platform for fun with family and friends around the Salish Sea.
The galley is spacious. Morris and I gather around the table.
“When the boat was listed for sale in 2012,” Morris begins, “the owner hired me to do a pre-purchase survey of the boat.”
For Morris, the Cape Ross was love at first sight. He and the current owner also clicked, and Morris was hired on to head much of the day-to-day care of the boat.
As conversions go, Morris says, the Cape Ross is a project that could inspire others.
“The Pacific Northwest has a lot of different wood fishing boats that are ideal for conversions. Seiners and trollers, sometimes even smaller gillnetters, are up here and a lot of people are retiring out of the fishing business.”
For anyone interested in taking on such a conversion, Morris has one word: ballast. Commercial fishing vessels are designed with a large, empty hold for fish and ice, so for the boat to trim properly as a yacht, more ballast is generally required.
“Also, many of these boats that are candidates for conversion come with a lot of deferred maintenance,” he says. “I tell people to remember that the purchase price is merely their down payment.”
One of the hallmarks of a converted wooden workboat is a narrower beam, which was the style back in the day and has more seakeeping and fuel-efficiency chops. “These older designs are longer and narrow,” he says. “Here we have just a 15-foot, 7-inch beam on a 67-foot boat. She’s just beautiful out of the water.”
Morris’ eyes light up when he talks about the construction of the hull. The Cape Ross has white oak frames and locally sourced Douglas fir planking below the waterline. Alaskan yellow cedar and an African mahogany called sapele are at and above the waterline. The marine grade aluminum house, decks and bulwarks are low maintenance and stand up to the Pacific Northwest weather.
“Yellow cedar is really nice planking stock: durable, easy to work with, smells great,” he says.
At the helm, the interior trim is locally sourced Western maple, a great choice to brighten an interior, but always with small marks and idiosyncrasies. “They incorporated some of how the wood actually is with the natural defects and features of how Mother Nature intended,” he says. “I always liked that.”
The vessel’s workboat history and yacht style truly hybridize at the helm. Visibility is excellent, with a series of windowpanes that put the skipper inside a wide, gentle curve. The helm is minimalist and pragmatic, with just the basics and systems redundancy.
Morris drops a tasteful boast: “Last summer, I had her up at the Victoria Classic Boat Festival.” The Cape Ross won Best Engine Room. As we head toward the belly of the boat to see it, Morris gestures toward the sole. Beneath it is stowage, but there are no handles to open it. He reaches for a handheld suction cup.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m not a fan of weird little handles for floorboards,” he says.
The engine room is not only clean in the generic sense, but its valves are new and brassy. The Caterpillar 3406 diesel, rated at 275 hp, has walking access on all sides. Morris possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of every drop that has ever sullied her bilge, which on this day (and most days) is bone dry.
The fuel polisher is mounted aft near the watermaker, and through it an operator can easily move fuel between the two tanks. There’s a proper access doorway forward, leading to a V-berth, and another one aft, to more berths and lounging space.
We venture aft through the master stateroom and onto the deck, where a surprise awaits. “It’s a wood-fired hot tub in a farm-style watering trough,” he says. The wood burning component was crafted by a local company called Snorkel Stoves, based in Woodinville, Washington. The tub is a fun addition, albeit one that tries Morris’ workboat sensibilities. It certainly wasn’t something he’d dream up.
Forward past the dinghy and davit is a passage up to the open flybridge, with wide views. A commercial purse seiner is moored across the dock from us, the crew no doubt making final preparations for the summer fishing season. In her previous career, the Cape Ross lived that life. Who played our part in those decades past, gazing at the busy crew of the Cape Ross with her engines humming along at an ethereal idle?
He chuckles and then adds, “She has a soul, I think. She gives back.”