From the deck of a mammoth cruise ship, Wayne Johnson found his Alaskan vacation went too fast -- up to 22 knots, in fact. So on his most recent visit, instead of charging up the coast on a floating resort, he and seven family members chartered the Ursa Major, a 65-foot trawler that putts along at a pokey nine knots.
It's not the kind of trawler that pulls in nets gorged with salmon. The Ursa Major is a luxury yacht fitted atop the hearty hull of a working boat. But the ship -- and the many luxury trawlers like her -- do share some traits with their working brethren. For one thing, their slow motion doesn't startle sea life, such as the pods of whales that sometimes splash alongside.
Trawler travelers have a lot of options, from 65-footers with a full crew, including a gourmet chef, to more spartan 32-foot "bareboats," which travelers stock and pilot themselves. Big luxury boats that may even have satellite TV and Internet hookups typically cost about $3,000 per passenger, all-inclusive, for a week. A smaller 40-foot bareboat might go for about $600 per person per week, not including groceries, dock fees, and gas.
No certification is required to captain a trawler, but charter companies will insist on basic boating knowledge and skill. Volunteer organization U.S. Power Squadrons offers an eight-hour course on safety, rules of the sea, and anchoring for about $25. A more complete $40 course including navigation takes about 18 hours, says the USPS' Darrell Allison (usps.org/d_stuff/dist.html).
Many of the charter companies offer training, too. "Typically, if they are really inexperienced, it might take two to three days," says Bill Shermer, a.k.a. "Mother Goose," of Blue Goose Charters in Baltimore. "I can teach them to read a chart and to dock a boat, and the rest is common sense." ABC Yacht Charters in Anacortes, Wash., runs a three-day training course for $595 or can arrange for a skipper, at $250 a day, who will teach you while your trip is under way.
Trawlers come in many shapes and sizes but are notable primarily for deep ballasted hulls that can right themselves if overturned. Whether single-screw, twin-screw, tugboat, catamaran, or classic monohull, the boats are tough oceangoing vessels that chug along for long distances. In fact, in 2002, a 40-foot Nordhavn trawler became the smallest powerboat ever to circumnavigate the globe.
Since there are few passengers, guests can set the itinerary as they go. When Johnson wanted a close-up view of the huge Alaskan glaciers that teeter at water's edge, he got one. "I'd say we were within 400 yards -- as close as we could get without being too close," he said. "We were eating fish we had caught ourselves while watching bears frolicking nearby on shore." Johnson was even allowed to take the boat's wheel under the captain's eye.
Jim and Brenda Nawrocki of Midland, Mich., chartered a 36-foot trawler last August with another couple. For five days, they cruised Chesapeake Bay, watching crab and oyster boats at work, swimming at resortlike marinas, eating crabcakes at local restaurants, and sailing within 50 feet of osprey nests -- all on fuel that would run about $73 at today's prices. "We have a picture of the girls driving the boat and we like to say: 'They don't let you do that on Carnival (CCL),"' says Jim. He has reserved the boat for this year, too.
By Roy Furchgott