Over the years, I have watched the evolution of the cruising powerboat go from minimally equipped, slow trawlers that provided basic seaworthy characteristics, to fully modern trawler yachts that are stabilized, luxurious, and have all the comforts of home. They provide the ultimate cruising experience.
Most of today’s trawler yachts, however, do not have the long legs needed to cross oceans or remain self-sufficient for extended periods of time. Yes, it has been done, but it really isn’t what these boats were designed to do. Venerable brands, such as Grand Banks, Mainship, Ocean Alexander, and Krogen, offer a high degree of real-world capability for couples who cruise coastal waters and spend winters in warmer climates. Whether at anchor or in a marina, these boats carry reasonable amounts of fuel, water, and storage for independent living for a couple of weeks at a time.
But, as we all come to realize, this independence is short lived. Soon, the holding tanks need to be pumped out, water tanks refilled, and fuel must be taken on from either daily use of the main engines or to power the generator while at anchor. For most people, the compromises are accepted as part of the program.
But there is another option that should be considered. Those global traveling yachts, often described as expedition trawlers, have everything it takes to circumnavigate in safety and comfort. The highest quality of the breed, such as those from Northern Marine, compromise little in terms of livability and comfort, and are built to provide their owners with a fabulous experience voyaging from continent to continent.
What I would like to suggest is that what makes these boats so fantastic for long distance passage making also makes them superlative cruising boats for the rest of us, who may not be interested in circling the globe or seeking adventure in high latitudes.
I have lived aboard both sail and power boats. Starting out as little more than camping on the water, I eventually graduated to powerboats that provided most of the creature comforts we expect in the modern cruising boat. Air conditioning, washer/dryer, on-demand hot water, central vacuum, fresh water marine toilets…really, a long list of systems that today define pleasure boating.
I was recently reminded of another element of the liveaboard experience when I toured a 39-foot Nordic Tug at our Seattle Yachts office in Annapolis. This popular cruiser, which displaces around 22,000 lbs., is an ideal choice for the Great Loop or Alaska or the tropics. It is a good size for a couple and a dog.
A slight chop in Spa Creek made the trawler bounce around in the slip, and it brought home the downside of the semi-displacement hull form so popular today. Flat sections of the hull, in a shape that is also kept light enough to go fast with a larger horsepower engine, provide a performance envelope that extends cruising speeds from single digits into the teens. That offers flexibility to the cruiser. But the downside of this is the semi-displacement boat can also be squirrelly at slow speeds or at the dock when it is windy, or the water is anything but flat calm. This is accepted for a cruising boat, up to a point, but when one is living aboard, it can be uncomfortable.
I think back to living in a marina in Stuart, Florida, aboard my 41-foot power catamaran, for a winter down south. On days when the fetch across the St Lucie River made things lively in the marina, it was unsettling enough that we would get off the boat and go to a movie to get a break from the motion. Safely tied in our slip, we were in no danger, of course, but the comfort level was not much fun.
I can recall a similar experience on other boats, even up to a 60-footer. And the forward staterooms on some cruising motoryachts come to mind at several of the Miami in-water shows, where the motion in the bow was downright nasty. Even tied up on display for the boat show, no way anyone would choose to live in those staterooms in such conditions.
My point is that the comfort level on many boats depends to a large extent on the conditions, and it does not matter if the boat is safely tucked in a marina or at anchor. Motion is motion, and it is tiring.
Now, compare this kind of boat to a Northern Marine or other heavy, full displacement yacht. Let me tell you that being aboard a Northern Marine 64-footer that displaces 180,000 lbs. is an altogether different experience than on that tug. You must remind yourself that you are even afloat, as the rock-solid stability and lack of motion is remarkable…and very comfortable. When I reflect being aboard a Northern Marine 80 a few months back, with its displacement of over 280,000 lbs., I felt certain we were sitting on the bottom of the creek. Such displacement allows large tanks for water, fuel, gray and black water, and the hull is still fully ballasted to keep the boat stable. It is, by any definition, a small ship.
I know several Northern Marine owners who have no interest in crossing an ocean but enjoy an outstanding living experience in local waters. It is home for many of these couples.
Even a larger motoryacht, which may have a displacement of 65,000 lbs. or more, will be affected more by outside conditions than a full displacement trawler yacht. That is something to consider. Nothing beats displacement for comfort.
Getting It Just the Way You Want
Among other considerations, there are also benefits to building your boat in the U.S., even if they are not obvious. Normally, when one orders a new production boat through a marketing company, such as Nordhavn, Kadey-Krogen, or any number of other popular brands, the actual builder is in China, Taiwan, Turkey, or some other distant land. So, the construction of one’s boat is pretty much hands off until it arrives by ship to this country. That is the case for most all the cruising production boats out there. It is the way production boat building evolved in today’s recreational marine industry.
Compare the above scenario to Northern Marine, which has been doing it differently since it began operation in Anacortes, Washington. Bud LeMieux, one of the founders of the company, said it was always key for the builder to communicate directly with the customer, to really understand what their dream yacht was all about. No two custom boats are ever quite the same, and Bud believes the company got good at building custom boats from mostly stock parts sourced from the commercial marine industry. Bud spent several decades at Delta Marine, building commercial fishing boats as well as mega yachts. He was already familiar with building high quality yachts that also could be maintained, using robust commercial equipment unlike what is normally found on recreational boats. His experience told him what would last the test of time, and he chose gear that fit that mission statement.
“What set Northern Marine apart from the beginning was our DNA,” Bud told me. “Our background was building rugged and reliable fishing boats and super yachts. The other pleasure boat builders came from building sailboats and small boats. The two are worlds apart.”
And this remains the case today at Northern Marine. Stuart Archer is Northern Marine’s general manager, and Stuart is quite clear about the build process and the value of it happening in this country. The result provides an exceptional experience for the owners of their boats.
“It all starts with the client and why they want a boat,” Stuart explained. “What we try to do is understand what they want and where they plan to go boating. How many guests and overnight beds are needed where they plan to take the boat? The key early on is to separate the 80 percent of how the boat will be used from the one to five percent of what might be on the wish list.”
In each case, the process starts with the general arrangement, which drives the actual size of the boat. Given the commercial background at Northern Marine, it also means the general arrangement begins with a full size, stand up engine room. There is never any doubt where this builder’s priorities are. A pressurized engine room, with exceptional access, where there will be no kneeling down for an owner to change the oil in the genset(s). There are no compromises in the engine room.
And the boat grows from there.
On almost all the boats Northern Marine has built to date, the size of the boat started out smaller than the finished boat because, as a custom builder of long-range yachts, they fit the boat to the needs of the client. Adding another three feet to the boat means they can accommodate that day head or carry additional fuel. And speaking of fuel, the boats are set up for extended cruising with a range of at least 3,000 miles. The longest distance between any two major ports, according to Archer, is 2,300 miles, so they ensure each yacht has the range to get there easily.
And unlike building a production boat, there is a great deal of flexibility. “We would build to any level one was willing to pay for,” Bud said. No small claim, considering its craftsmen could built up to the quality of a super yacht, gold fixtures and all.
This flexibility continues today. “We try to advise our owners to set up their boats to cover how they plan to use their boat most of the time,” Stuart told me. “We typically make suggestions to our owners about systems and equipment that can make their cruising more comfortable. In some cases, we will do things no other builder would consider. If the destinations include Panama or the Caribbean, for example, we suggest they consider installing two watermakers. Or if they want to remain in a quiet and pristine harbor, we might suggest a small nighttime generator or increasing the inverter and battery bank. And for those planning to cruise Europe, we might recommend adding a frequency converter to change the dock shorepower from 220v, 50Hz back to the boat’s 110v, 60Hz service. This is a large piece of equipment, and if it is not needed right away, it could be left out and added later if we pre-wire the space dedicated for it.
“The build process can be just as exciting as cruising on your new yacht. The more involved the owners are in each decision, the better. The floor plans, countertops, fixtures, moldings, inlays, even door handles. The process can be fun and enjoyable…or it can be overwhelming.
“At the end of the day,” Stuart continued, “what we build, and sell is the dream. For most, the dream is that place of peace and comfort one cannot get anywhere else except on a boat. There is something about being on the hook in a remote anchorage that provides the best sleep.”
And what a dream it can be! I still recall spending a couple of weeks aboard Spirit of Zopilote, the first yacht from Northern Marine, a 64-footer, launched in the mid-‘90s. With her exquisite lines drawn by talented yacht designer Steve Seaton, this lovely yacht was the perfect platform to cruise SE Alaska and Misty Fjords National Monument with owners Bruce and Joan Kessler. Each day was a delight, seeing beautiful wilderness and nature while living on a luxury yacht with every convenience. The perfect hosts, Bruce and Joan shared their love of boating and Alaska’s wilderness, and it remains one of my favorite memories. Seated at a proper dining table, eating a gourmet dinner while watching a bear walk the beach not far away, the world in total silence. It was fabulous.
Bruce and Joan still own and cruise their Northern Marine 64, now based in Maine, and Captain Andrea Gaines runs the boat for the couple. Spirit of Zopilote is still as strikingly beautiful as she was in 1996, truly a classic yacht that stands out in any anchorage.
How Fast Do You Need to Go?
No question, the benefit of the semi-displacement cruiser is its ability to run at higher speeds. The popularity of today’s cruising motoryacht is proof that many want to cruise in the mid-teens, powered by two large diesel engines capable of pushing even a large motoryacht up to almost 20 knots.
However, such speed comes at a price, and not just increased motion under way and at the dock. Higher speeds mean significantly increased fuel burn. While these yachts carry large fuel tanks, the higher fuel consumption by two large diesel engines means refueling happens on a regular basis, perhaps daily.
Now compare that to cruising on a full displacement trawler. I recently caught up with Mike and Mia Harrington, who live aboard their Northern Marine 64, Gallivant. They told me they enjoy traveling at 9 knots, which is a safe and pleasant speed, even if the boat could go faster. The motion is easy, and there is no need to hold on. In fact, they don’t have to put things into the galley sink before they leave, which they had to do on a previous semi-displacement trawler.
Under way, they go about their normal routines, even working on their business, instead of being planted in helm chairs as the boat rushes along into whatever sea conditions of the day. The ride is comfortable and the stabilized Gallivant runs along without distress or unnecessary motion. They arrive rested and relaxed.
It’s All About Comfort
To the Harringtons, and most other owners I’ve met over the years, all considerations lead back to the comfort level. A comfortable ride when they are under way, the enormous stability of the boat when at a dock or at anchor, and the luxury of having all the fresh water, for example, to take long showers, rivals anything ashore. When they have guests aboard, they treasure the fact that there is no rationing of resources, and their guests can enjoy the comforts of the boat without compromise.
A video produced by the Harringtons on board their Northern Marine:
Adding to the comfort level is how easy it is to drive and dock the boat. Because of its size and displacement, a Northern Marine yacht is quite controllable, and easy to dock with its hydraulic bow and stern thrusters. There is never any need for drama, as the heavy boat just sits there until one uses the controls to put it into a slip or alongside a pier. Everything happens slowly, and modern yacht controllers make easy work of maneuvering the boat. The weight of the boat and the thrusters make all the difference.
Continuing with the comfort theme, the Harringtons find the boat to be a perfect home for two people, every bit as comfortable as a home on land, but with the ability to move to new locations on a whim. Spend a couple of weeks living aboard in Port Townsend? No problem. Want to stay longer or move somewhere else? Again, Gallivant is their home, and as comfortable as any home anywhere.
Mike and Mia like to have guests aboard and find the large boat deck allows them to carry electric bikes, kayaks, paddle boards and other water toys. Guests enjoy the comfortable lifestyle and adventure of visiting new places aboard their lovely home.
“One doesn’t need to have global dreams to enjoy a Northern Marine,” Mike told me. Its offshore and bluewater capability provides supreme self-sufficiency on the water. The single Volvo D-9 diesel only uses 8 GPH while cruising, so having 2,800 gallons on board means they only top up once a year, and the water and holding tanks also do not require frequent attention. There simply is no need to be concerned about refueling, refilling water tanks, or pumping out. Those activities can happen when they are in the mood, or it is convenient.
The Cost of Admission
One thing I wondered about is how difficult it is to become competent in owning and operating such a vessel, which, as I stated before, is really a small ship. Mike and Mia made their initial move to Northern Marine from a 45-foot Ocean Alexander motoryacht. They built their first Northern Marine, the 80-foot Meander, in 2003. Mike explained how he found a mentor willing to share his knowledge to develop the necessary skills in running a big boat. Cliff Rome, another one of the founders of Northern Marine, was an enormous help in getting Mike up to speed. He quickly learned maintenance and basic knowledge of the main engine and generator. And, as Mia pointed out, their mood slowly moved from apprehension to confidence.
“I initially thought, ‘Oh, no, something is wrong,’” Mia told me. “Then it became interesting to figure out the issues and solve them.” Attitude, above all else, is key.
Bud LeMieux told me there are now schools that teach many of these skills, available to owners who want to learn about caring for the machinery on their boats. Skagit Valley College has the NW Center of Excellence in Anacortes, and there is the Landing School in Arundel, Maine. Some of these schools even offer group trips where owners learn by cruising on their own boats under the watchful eye of a cruise leader, well versed in the maintenance of the modern yacht.
The Harringtons, much like the rest of us, have had to adjust their cruising plans because of Covid, and have stayed more local than they originally planned. Living in the Pacific Northwest, however, is no hardship, as anyone familiar with the area well knows.
But they do have Scandinavia on their horizon. Once they take off on that trip, they expect a fabulous and comfortable adventure that will bring them back East, a chance to visit the Bahamas and Caribbean, as they make their way to their eventual cruising destinations in Norway, Iceland, and Greenland. Gallivant is the ideal boat for this couple.
Talking to Mike and Mia reminds me why I remain such a fan of the Northern Marine brand, and why I enjoy time aboard these incredible yachts. They are the real deal, with modern systems, built by people with experience gained from commercial fishing and the workboat community. And everything is meant to be seen, inspected, and maintained.
One owner told me how he and his wife refrained from shoving off to the South Pacific directly but instead spent a summer in SE Alaska, taking the time to learn the boat and its systems. He intended to become a proper ship’s engineer, a role that he knew would pay off handsomely when he and his wife did decide it was time to explore the world.
Sure, it is fun to blast across the Gulf Stream at close to 20 knots to put that cantankerous beast in one’s wake, but when I consider the overall performance and what it costs, I always come back to a comfortable ride aboard a heavy displacement boat that doesn’t need a tether to shoreside facilities. It just makes me feel good. No drama, no ongoing large fuel bills, just quiet and comfortable capability, every day of the year.
And no matter where in the world I happen to be, I am home.