It was a voyage of nearly 800 miles, from a new and luxurious resort on Bedwell Harbour in southern British Columbia to the hard-working, congenial fishing port of Wrangell, Alaska. Twenty days of adventure, and misadventure. Days of hard work, excitement, and frustration. Days of cruising in sunshine, rain, and wind along the fabled Inside Passage with new friends aboard good boats. What could be more rewarding?
We were celebrating 50 years of boatbuilding by Grand Banks: nearly 40 people in 16 GBs, including a new 70-foot Aleutian, an even newer 44-foot Heritage Europa, and a 1973-vintage, 48-foot wood GB motoryacht.
The tour was sponsored by Grand Banks. The company assigned staff and hired planners, spent a lot of money, and recruited corporate sponsors from the marine community, who supported the adventure by underwriting events and providing a cornucopia of gifts for participants. Each participating yacht paid $3,500 to help cover costs.
I know that groups of boaters have cruised to Alaska together. A few years ago, we encountered eight boats from the Bremerton, Washington, Yacht Club in Taku Harbor near Juneau, but it was a loosely organized, ad hoc, good-natured, potluck kind of event.
I know that predicted log races between Olympia, Washington, and Juneau, Alaska, attracted dozens of participants years ago. I don't know of a corporatesponsored cruise involving such a large fleet of boats of one make.
It's likely never happened before, and the complex and costly nature of the event may mean it won't happen again. At least not until GB turns 100.
We came together for the first time on May 14 at the hotel at the Poets Cove Resort in Bedwell Harbour on South Pender Island in British Columbia. We prepared to get under way early the following day. It was, one participant told me later, something like arriving at summer camp as a kid. Who are all these people? Will I make friends? Will they like me? And what about the staff? What do they want? Summer camps have rules, some spoken and others left unsaid. Which is which? Will the bonds we make be lasting? Worry, worry, worry.
This will not be an analysis of group dynamics. It is sufficient to say that participants represented a diverse population of people who have developed unique attitudes, personalities, and behavioral traits over 50, 60, or 70 years of life. Nearly all were retired and obviously had been successful in a business world where aggressiveness, competitiveness, determination, and imagination count highly. We would see it all over nearly three weeks of cruising.
The idea for Grand Tour 2006 (Grand Banks likes to write it this way: Grand TO6R and GT06) developed in early 2005 as corporate officials searched for a dramatic event to mark half a century of boatbuilding. The plan was announced at a rendezvous of the Puget Sound Grand Banks Owners' Association in July '05. For many of us, that marked the beginning of months of work preparing our yachts for the rugged trip up the coast.
As we assembled in the Poets Cove hotel conference room, the first instructions came down. Sit with boaters who will be in your pod or cruising group. For Polly and me, this turned out to be a cruise along memory lane. As owners of Quadra, a 1979 42-foot Europa, we settled at a table with Tom Huse and Susan Hall, owners of a 1979 42-foot Classic, Sea Gypsy. (Susan and I first met in 1973 when she was a citizen volunteer promoting clean air regulations and I was a Seattle Times reporter covering that issue-more proof of my contention that the boating world revolves in tight, intersecting orbits.) Also at the table were Sam and Sigrun Wilson, who would cruise in their 36 Classic, S&S Colt 45. (Sam is the greatgrandson of the inventor of that famous revolver.)
The Wilsons owned the only single-engine boat in the fleet, and while that was a disadvantage when it came to speed, it would be a blessing later. Quadra and her crew were there because it seemed like a good trip and to represent PMM, one of the corporate sponsors of Grand Tour and a magazine for which I have been writing for 11 years. (Other publications sent writers for a few days, but PMM was the only magazine that had a boat and a writing team on Grand Tour all the way.)
We were the slow guys, the tail-end Charlies. The Wilsons cruised at 7-1/2 knots, more or less, while Sea Gypsy and Quadra could squeeze out an average of 8 knots or a little more.
At other tables were pods for boats that could hit 9 knots, or something more, and the big, fast yachts with speeds of 10 knots to about 20 knots. The idea was that the slow pod would leave first each morning, and the others would follow according to their speed, with all reaching the evening destination at about the same time. It didn't always work that way, because everyone usually was eager to be up and moving early. An added benefit of pods was that members of each would tend to look after each other and to remain in visual and radio contact while under way. That's the way it usually worked.
One of the medium-speed yachts was a 42-foot Europa, Gypsy, owned by David and Heather Ballaine. Polly and I know the previous owners of the boat, and Polly had made David's acquaintance years ago when he was a mortgage banker and she was real estate editor of The Seattle Times. The orbits grow tighter and tighter, don't they?
But who were all these strangers?
They were all GB owners. Some had significant experience at sea. The Ballaines, for example, had sailed the South Pacific, and Ron and Barbara Cockrill had taken their 48 motoryacht from Vancouver, B.C., to San Francisco and back to the San Juan Islands, while Gunther and Christina Weiss had cruised their 66 GB up and down the West Coast. But only a few had been to Southeast Alaska. For many, the opportunity to make a dreamed-about cruise to with like-minded boaters and with the aid of experienced and professional cruisers was irresistible.
All were ready to go.
A FLASHY START
Early Monday, May 15, we were off like a team of thoroughbreds through the starting gate, all flying GBsupplied red-and-blue bunting, sporting Grand Tour burgees at the bow, and with large flags snapping from masts for the sake of photographers who circled overhead in a helicopter and a fixed-wing aircraft. We were racing to make slack water at Dodd Narrows, a rapids we had to pass to reach our destination, Nanaimo, B.C.
The learning curve sharpened as we motored north in Trincomali Channel toward the narrows. The owner of a fast and large GB charged through the pack at high speed, tossing a wake that caused slower yachts to roll severely. He was chastised sharply via VHF radio, and, to his credit, he learned to take his speed and wake far from the pack, most of the time. At the final banquet of the trip, he was roasted mildly for his nautical exuberance, and he took it well.
We began to hear from the talkers, too. Careful seamen, they alerted boats they planned to pass, debated navigational issues (which side of the island do we pass?), shared views on boating and ports of call, and sought some confidence-building and hand-holding as decisions needed to be made. Talk, talk, talk.
In Nanaimo, we tied up at Cameron Pier. For some of us, the landing was against wind and current. Noriyaki Takagi came to help us and focused on fenders rather than getting our breast line around the bull rail before the wind carried us away. I snapped an order at him, and he made the line tight. Later, I stopped at Indigo, the 42 Europa he and his father had chartered for the trip, to apologize for being rude. It happens that way in Japan, too, he said with a smile. His father, Sansin Takagi, is an oil distributor in Naguya, Japan, and owns two Grand Banks yachts.
Noriyaki studied in the United States and speaks English well. His father knows many verbs and nouns in English and uses vigorous hand gestures to connect them. They chartered Indigo for the tour, fished at every opportunity, and served raw fish at dock parties.
An evening tradition began in Nanaimo.
Crews from each boat were asked to visit Sanctuary, the 70- foot Aleutian that became known as the mothership. She's owned by Jeff and Susan Bland; Susan is the executive director of Grand Tour 2006 and has been a goodwill representative of the builder and a leader of the Puget Sound Grand Banks Owners' Association. As darkness fell, we strolled down the pier to find Michele Weingeist, an event planner and coordinator hired to help with the tour, and David Hensel, marketing communications director for Grand Banks, digging in large shipping boxes for armloads of handsome rain jackets by Aronson of Australia, a corporate sponsor of the tour. We all wore them back to our boats, and, later, when we all appeared somewhere together wearing the distinctive red, white, and blue jackets, we were studied closely by nonboaters, some of whom couldn't help asking who we were and what this was all about. After group events, it was funny to watch everyone search coat racks for his or her jacket.
Susan Bland referred to the nightly corporate gifts as "pillow mints." All came from either GB or supporting sponsors and ranged from books and hats to vests, caps, bags of smoked salmon, bottom paint, and subscriptions and tote bags from this magazine. The last night, Ron and Barbara Cockrill received a one-of-a-kind pillow mint. Early Grand Banks yachts were able to carry steadying sails, and a few did. As a room decoration for the final tour dinner in Wrangell, Grand Banks created and displayed a steadying sail bearing the Grand Tour logo. Ron asked for it, got it, and next morning hung it from the mast of Grand Destiny, the Cockrills' 1973-model, 48-foot wood motoryacht.
From Nanaimo, we enjoyed summer-like weather and an easy trip across the Strait of Georgia, attended a lecture on marine mammals in Pender Harbour, timed our passage through Yuculta, Gillard, and Dent rapids to the right minute, and ate a ton of crab at the small café in Shoal Bay and as much shrimp and crab at Lagoon Cove Marine Resort.
Things tightened up at Sullivan Bay Marina, our jumping-off point for the crossing of 40 miles of Queen Charlotte Strait. It would be an ocean cruise. We were scheduled for one night there, and we spent three because of small-craft warnings on the strait. After the second night, some crews quickly tired of hanging out at Sullivan Bay, as nice as it is, and really wanted to get under way. This is supposed to be a vacation, they said.
The morning of May 24, after the third night, John Kessler, the professional captain retained to help lead the pack, said the forecast remained uncertain but believed there was an afternoon weather window. While some leaped onto their boats and started engines, others (including the crew of Quadra) were uncertain. We had been out there several times before and wanted a more positive forecast. Finally, we accepted Kessler's recommendations, based on his many years of piloting small cruise ships through those waters, and joined the fleet as it motored away from Sullivan Bay.
Except for one vicious squall that swept quickly over us from the south, bringing winds to 40 knots, heavy rain, and large following seas, it was an OK trip around Cape Caution, outside of Egg Island, and into Duncanby Landing, a nice port in any weather. The squall lasted long enough that I began to fear the entire trip would be bad, but it blew up coast, drenching northern British Columbia. We reached Duncanby in a huge rain storm and welcomed the meal awaiting us ashore.
We made up time lost at Sullivan Bay with a couple of long, hard cruising days. Now, we were in cooler weather with clouds near the deck and rain a frequent companion. The last ocean crossing, Dixon Entrance, surprisingly was wind free. And the swells were manageable, except every now and then a couple threatened to roll us over.
Cruising on a lavish, corporate-sponsored expedition with so many others is a rare experience. Most of us go boating alone, or with one or two friends on our boats. But the strengths of group cruising showed through on two occasions on the Grand Tour.
One destination was Khutze Inlet, on Grenville Channel in northern British Columbia. Sam and Sigrun Wilson started early in S&S Colt 45 and got there in time to find desirable anchorage at the head of the inlet near a waterfall. An experienced hand, Sam motored around the anchorage to check the bottom and to assure himself there were no pinnacles or rocks. Finally, he dropped and set his anchor.
About 0500 the next morning, either wind or current pushed the stern of the 36-foot sedan toward shore as the tide dropped. Finally, the keel hit a muddy bottom, the bow tilted toward deeper water, and the boat heeled over. Jeff Bland noticed the problem as he dinghied his yacht dog, Cinnamon, to shore. Quickly, GB technical people on a company boat, Sea Gate, reached the site.
With a tremendous sense of humor, Sigrun later remembered the grounding. "Sam woke me and said, 'I think we're on the rocks,'" she told me. "I thought, what a time to tell me he wanted a divorce! And then I realized we really were on the...rocks!"
Soon she was off the boat and up to her knees in the water, in her night clothes, calling for help. Fran Morey, service and support director for GB in League City, Texas, and others on Sea Gate decided the grounded yacht could be towed clear of the mud because the weight was on her keel. A bridle was rigged, Sea Gate gave a heave, and S&S Colt 45 was back in the water, with no damage to her hull or running gear-thanks to the single engine and stout keel and skeg that go with it.
Some water entered the boat through ventilators, soaking carpeting and bedding. But Sam fired up his Cat diesel and took off for the next destination, with Sea Gate trailing along, just in case.
The second Grand Tour mishap did not end as well.
Our first anchorage in Alaska was in Foggy Bay, just north of Dixon Entrance. It is a small harbor inside protective but dangerous rocks and reefs.
Several of us motored out at dawn, bound for Ketchikan. Christina, one of two 66-footers built by Grand Banks, and others, came later, after the tide had dropped even lower. Gunther Weiss and his wife, Christina, have cruised up and down the West Coast and are seasoned big-yacht owners. But, while exiting Foggy Bay, Christina nicked a rock, damaging a stabilizer fin and a propeller. She began taking on water, by some estimates about 800gph.
Tonda, a 42 Europa, bumped the same rock but escaped with only superficial damage to her keel.
Gunther started the ship's pumps and soon Sea Gate was alongside, with Sanctuary standing by. Larry Crouch, a GB service and support manager who had succeeded Morey as cruise fix-it guy, went aboard Christina to help. Many of us were miles to the north, listening to VHF radio for details of the drama, trying to make sense of fragmented conversations between the on-scene GBs and the Coast Guard.
Buck Thompson, owner of the 42-foot Classic Pelican, came alongside Christina with an auxiliary pump. Together, the pumps kept up with the flood.
The Coast Guard had been notified, and a fast 47- footer was dispatched from Ketchikan. I felt a chill of appreciation as the cutter blew down Revillagigedo Channel, burning barrels of fuel, blue lights flashing.
Later, Christina, with Sea Gate her shadow, took off under her own power for a haulout facility in Ketchikan. Gunther decided to have the yacht barged to the Seattle area for repairs, and the trip ended for him and Christina. Most of us had teary farewell chats with Gunther on VHF the next day.
Without the team support of GB owners and the great technical skills of Morey and Crouch, Grand Tour might have lost two vessels.
Susan Bland summed it up that evening, stressing the concern aboard Sanctuary as the rescue operation unfolded. "This showed we were operating as a team," she said.
Two Germans cruising aboard Christina moved aboard Indigo, with the gentlemen from Japan, for the rest of the cruise. Inge and Wolfgang Kritzler, GB owners in Germany, had wanted to join the Grand Tour but had no boat in the Northwest. The Weisses had invited them aboard Christina.
In the profile the Kritzlers provided Grand Banks, they said, "We know the difference between passengers and crew." How true. Soon after they boarded Indigo, I saw them helping with lines and cleaning up, and heard them on VHF.
While Susan Bland helped develop the "pillow mint" gift program-something we've all seen in hotels-it's not surprising that Sanctuary functioned as a hotel during the Inside Passage cruise. Michele Weingeist, the event coordinator, lived aboard, as did Becky Selengut, a chef who cooked for the rotating crowd on the Aleutian and conducted cooking classes for Grand Tour participants. (At one class, I learned to eat sushi.)
While some guests moved aboard and flew home later, another permanent fixture was Margo Wood. She and her late husband published the Charlie's Charts series of cruising guides that are unusual because of the simple line drawings sketched by Charlie to help cruisers find harbors and anchorages. (Their Alaska volume was of enormous benefit to us on our first trip north in 1993.)
Since Charlie's death, Margo has continued to update the North to Alaska volume, sailing north singlehanded to gather information. Throughout the cruise she shared her knowledge of regional history, favorite anchorages, and the best passages.
She lectured us via VHF and at group meetings. She also met individually with boat owners who were looking for places to visit after Grand Tour ended. And as a special bonus, her newest issue of North to Alaska was a pillow mint.
Polly and I were pleased to be asked by Margo to check out Red Bluff Bay, a place we had visited several times but Margo had not. It's on the east coast of Baranof Island, and it is a treasure. We bagged a pot full of shrimp there while investigating for Margo after the tour.
John Kessler spent nights on Sea Gypsy, but during the day, he was all over the fleet. A professional skipper and an instructor at Pacific Maritime Institute, John prepared daily cruising briefings and made the difficult decisions not to leave Sullivan Bay because of weather. His briefings were general, giving destinations and required charts, and warning of hazards. Planning routes, loading waypoints, and other navigational chores were left to individual boaters.
John spent a day aboard each boat. He came aboard Quadra, helped tune our computer for better performance with Nobeltec, and shared a lot of sea stories, many of them very funny. He took turns at the wheel, allowing us each to have lunch sitting at the table for the first time, and took the boat smoothly across sloppy seas at the entrance to Klewnuggit Inlet, one of our anchorages along Grenville Channel in northern B.C.
Everyone also applauded Maxi Mauselle and Polly. Maxi cruised aboard Wanted II with her husband, Ron. Polly and Maxi are cancer survivors who ignored the burdens of illness to join Grand Tour 2006.
Polly left Anacortes in the middle of a chemotherapy regime and arranged to have treatment in Ketchikan twice during the summer. Maxi had concluded her treatment but still was dealing with side effects. While neither jogged to the grocery in Ketchikan, both participated in programs, boat handling, and social events.
Tom Huse, of Sea Gypsy, toasted them at the final group dinner in Wrangell. He lifted a glass, praising them for determination and courage. Everyone stood with him.
On the last Sunday, in Wrangell, I was walking the docks and someone called out: "Have you seen the first Grand Banks?" Impossible, I thought. This is the last place one could expect to find a "first" GB.
It wasn't a Grand Banks, but for those who know company history, it strongly resembled Spray, a 36-foot pilothouse yacht widely considered the prototype of GBs that followed. The hull lines of Spray were retained, but the pilothouse styling was abandoned when the first Grand Banks yachts were built in 1965.
The boat was named Tenacious. She is 28 feet long, painted yellow and white, and was decorated with baskets of flowers. The owner was there, enjoying the interest of GB owners. "Did Ken Smith design it?" I asked. He did, the owner said.
Smith designed Spray for American Marine, as the company then was known, and Grand Banks yachts that followed her. Tenacious seems to be at least a first cousin.
When David Hensel and Susan Bland first proposed the Grand Tour, they thought as many as 25 boats might sign on. Fortunately, fewer did.
Sixteen was a good number to keep track of, and most of the selected anchorages and marinas along the way could accommodate that many, but not 25. We crowded several anchorages in British Columbia and Alaska, and had the wind blown overnight, we would have learned the value of fenders.
On arriving at Lagoon Cove Marina, proprietor Bill Barber (we've been calling there for years and know him well) gave Quadra a challenging moorage: on the inside of a float, with deep water, but the rocky shoreline only a few yards away. We had to back in. "Don't scratch the rocks, Bob," Bill said.
In Lagoon Cove, lodge owner Mark MacDonald used scale drawings of his moorage and the yachts to plan how we would tie up. Every boater received a copy of the plan as part of the daily briefing, and we all fit, even though it required some careful backing and a lot of rafting.
In Wrangell, the marina management knew we were coming to their harbor, which usually is jammed with fishing vessels. With care and forethought we were scattered widely. Quadra and three other GBs were rafted to an old purse seiner tied to the dock. The only drawback was that the owner of the fishing boat started its engine and, because of its dry-stack exhaust, scattered oily soot over all of us. City and Indian community leaders greeted us graciously and joined us at a reception in Wrangell's new and stunning community center/museum.
In Ketchikan, customs officials knew we were coming, thanks to the efforts of Michele and Susan, and officers arrived quickly for those requiring inspection. We occupied temporarily vacant slips leased by fishboat owners. Shorepower pedestals were at or near most of the slips, but we couldn't use them, because no one has figured out how to separate pleasure boat energy use from fishboat use.
In contrast, the folks at Petersburg (where many of the GBs cruised after the end of Grand Tour 2006) assigned us temporarily vacant fishboat slips and said "plug in."
For some reason, Grand Tour 2006 prompted some participants to try their hand at poetry. Most of it was of the "roses are red" style.
Buck Thompson, owner of the 42 Classic Pelican, is a retired funeral home operator and has a fine, strong voice that could have made him a radio professional. He was one we always understood on VHF. He read a long poem at the final gathering in Wrangell. The essence: "We think this tour has been the best...it has been a great success."
Jeff Bland of Sanctuary read one, too. His theme: "What started as an idea has evolved to become a bestever celebration." Without reciting poetry, Margo Wood said we all should work "to make dreams live," adding that "you have done it with gusto."
Simply: Grand Tour 2006 was well planned, organized, and carried out. David Hensel, Susan Bland, and Michele Weingeist deserve high-fives for accepting difficult assignments and proving the mission was possible. Lots of credit, too, goes to Jonathan Cooper, a Grand Banks graphic designer and photographer who designed the tour logos, shared his camera skills with us, was aboard for most of the trip, and even skippered Sea Gate for a while.
All of the GB staff, and the cruisers, responded quickly, professionally, and properly when emergencies occurred. The technical crew kept the fleet moving.
The weather on Queen Charlotte Strait overwhelmed the schedule, even though planners had assumed we'd spend a couple of bad weather days in port. We made up lost time by running a couple of long, long days. To make the tour work, planners had to draft and live by a schedule for events along the way and for our arrival in Wrangell. We normally would not cruise with such a tight schedule, but it was vital for the success of Grand Tour 2006, and we learned to accept the demands it placed on us. As a card-carrying septuagenarian and the owner of an 8-knot boat, I found the catch-up days wearing.
It was fun to watch the huge cast of characters become friends and real people, not just biographical profiles in the cruise handbook. We hope to see many of them again, soon. In a way, the trip made me feel like a newspaper reporter again, because I was writing an Internet blog about the Grand Tour.
I worked daily gathering notes, recording impressions, taking photos, and hunting down cyber shops with high-speed connections that would enable me to flash text and photos to Natalie Friton, managing editor at PMM in Annapolis, who did the work that made the blog look great.
Polly and I have cruised the lower two-thirds of the Inside Passage dozens of times. It still is our favorite place for boating. We've taken Quadra to Southeast Alaska three times now, and it continues to offer challenges we appreciate: navigation, weather, even pesky systems malfunctions.
So. We got tired running long days and then joining in group gatherings most evenings. But we loved the adventure, the excitement, and the challenge. Ask us again, and we'll probably sign on.
Bob Livingston, the board chair and CEO of Grand Banks, was a passenger on Sanctuary as she landed at Bedwell Harbour, but he was unable to continue north with the fleet. He had been hired 30-some years ago to rescue a failing company. He did and created the line of yachts we all admire today. I'm sorry he couldn't have joined us at least for a couple of days under way.
He missed a great ride.
It was hard. It was exhilarating, stimulating, and fun!
I was tired before we left port because of my chemo treatments and the getting-ready requirements, but I was determined to hold up my role as first mate on this challenging adventure with newer, faster boats that left us in their wakes.
No matter that we had to be up and running at 0-dark 30 just to get to the night's moorage in time for evening events. We were spurred by the fact that we had made the trip before. We knew what to expect in sea conditions, we argued about courses, and we loved the peaceful, powerful beauty of the trek. We would rest and sleep when the trip was over.
I was thrilled when I heard the inveterate talkers on the VHF who were far ahead of us exclaim over a beautiful waterfall or mountain vista they had just seen. That's part of the reward for making the trip up the Inside Passage. It is so beautiful, it connects one with nature. (I wasn't so happy when we'd straggle into an anchorage or moorage to find that the fast boats had taken all the decent spots, sometimes leaving us with marginal night protection. However, it worked out, often with Sea Gypsy's invitation to raft alongside.)
Once we got across Queen Charlotte Strait, the social pace picked up. Because we were behind schedule, it meant long cruising days and busy evenings with little time for laundry, cooking, or tidying up the boat. (Some of these chores just have to be done.) Bob was busy every evening working on the blog. Usually I crashed after dinner or the cocktail event.
After a while, the routine reminded me of going to a business convention. There always was something going on, someone to meet or talk with. Someone with questions they thought we could answer, or just wanting to socialize. It was a stimulating experience but one I wouldn't be able to maintain indefinitely, even if I wasn't debilitated by chemotherapy.
The 2006 Grand Tour was a once-in-a-lifetime event highlighted by the outstanding community welcoming receptions and other events planned by the staff. We shall treasure the memories and the friendships.
However, it was so restful afterward to head for one of our favorite anchorages west of Petersburg and relax alone at anchor, taking time to enjoy the wide mountain and sea vistas, read one of the pillow mint books (by John Muir, the great outdoorsman), and nap.
I, too, am sorry Bob Livingston and other GB top management didn't have time for a prolonged personal taste of this unusual adventure. They might have been surprised and certainly pleased by what GB has made possible for boat owners and the joy that simple things brought to the event. I am grateful and privileged to have participated. Quadra will be flying the tour burgee and flag for years to come to remind us of the special experiences not available cruising solo. These ranged from forging new friendships to the side trip to the Stikine glacier and hunting for grizzly bears from an inflatable, a tour and reception at the outstanding Wrangell Museum, wonderful seafood feasts, and other dockside and community welcoming activities.
To support Bob's theory about the abundance of boating connections, Dr. Peter Rice, whom I visited in Ketchikan before receiving chemo there, knew about our tour and was a cosponsor of a welcoming luncheon the next day at Meyers Chuck. I missed the event because I was at the hospital. He missed it because he was flying to Seattle. But there was another one of those links that provide a special touch. The trip produced many of these kinds of events that create memories. I'm sure there will be more over time as we link up again with fellow travelers while at sea and reminisce.
Would I do it again? You bet!