The best boat for cruising the Inside Passage to S.E. Alaska may be the one that you currently own. All kinds of vessels safely round trip to Alaska each summer from sailing vessels to power boats including both planing hull and trawler style of vessels. Because most of the trip to S.E. Alaska is in protected waters, having an off-shore capable boat is not necessary to safely and comfortably take this cruise. Having said this, however, there are a couple of issues that may improve ones' trip...
The type of vessel that I would personally recommend is a displacement hull power boat followed by a semi-displacement vessel then either a planing hull power boat or a sailing vessel-especially one with a pilothouse. Why? First of all a round trip to Alaska will entail many, many days of cruising in the rain. Having a vessel that provides a steering helm that is protected from the weather is worthy of consideration. Either an enclosed pilothouse such as those available on most trawlers or an enclosed upper helm station will provide comfort. A second consideration is visibility. A pilothouse having a glass windshield with wipers is ideal with the common strataglass enclosures on many flybridges being a poor second choice. If your current vessel has a bimini cover only, you will quickly learn that the vessel's forward motion will bring rain (and dense fog) as well as cold air under the cover. Fully enclosing the upper helm station is an option but the strataglass windows in heavy rain are very difficult to see through, however the full enclosure will keep some of the cold and wetness out. Some folks plan to steer from their upper helm station in good weather and then go to their lower helm station when it is rainy, cold or in fog conditions. The problem with this option is two-fold. One: The best visibility on any vessel is from on high. Trying to view oncoming waves, debris in the water, much less the scenery, is typically difficult from a lower helm station, compared to a helm station located higher on the vessel. Two: Many boat owners don't have ALL their electronic equipment located in both locations. I recommend that you seriously consider having your navigational equipment, radar, VHF radio and depth finders located at your primary steering station, namely from the upper helm station when possible.
From the San Juan Islands of Washington State north, relying on wind for propulsion is rarely available. Either there is not enough wind or based on the desired heading, the direction of the wind is not reliable. The second factor, as mentioned above, deals with visibility and comfort issues on many sailing vessels. At the least, having a bimini is of value, but it needs to provide cover for the helm station. Otherwise, the helmsman will be spending hours at a time standing or sitting in the cold exposed to a nominal amount of wind, but saturated with rain. Not only will the helmsman be cold and wet, but the forward visibility will be impaired. Also, the viewing of the onboard radar and navigational program may be poor while underway. Finally, how often will the sailboat crew members be likely to maintain watch with the helmsman outside when it is toasty warm and comfortable inside-especially for hours at a time? Sure, you can wear high quality rain slickers, boots, a hat and gloves, but if you are outside in the weather, how does this picture compare with being out of the rain?
In spite of the above comments and observations, a trip along the Inside Passage, is well worth whatever discomfort you encounter along the way!
In case you are wondering about my personal vessel, let me fill you in... Our vessel for the past 20 plus years is a 32' twin screw Bayliner powerboat that was built in 1985. In that era the vessel was not designed to get up on plane. In fact, we travel at under 7 knots while underway. Our fuel burn compared to a planing hull of a similar length is substantially less and we get to wherever we desire to go. Faster boats will arrive at a destination quicker than we will, but we eventually arrive at our destination, too. Having had a 28' planing hull vessel previously, I would comment that it was a nerve-racking experience formerly when cruising at better than 20 knots across the water, uncomfortable in waves of 3 feet or larger, and didn't afford the amenities of our present vessel.
Immediately after purchasing our present boat we fully enclosed the upper helm station with a high quality strataglass product to make sure that our visibility in any direction was good. The cover of the helm station was canvas. What we discovered was that seagulls were fond of landing on the canvas cover leaving their white stain behind which eventually leached through to the underside of the canvas. Thus every few years we needed to re-cover the helm station. In sunny weather we found that the enclosed flybridge was a greenhouse and without having zippered sections, especially front and rear, we'd have roasted. Even without sunshine, the enclosed flybridge is typically warmer than the outside air. When the upper helm station was enclosed we relocated the vessel's radar above. We also added another depth finder and second VHF radio to the upper helm station, too. Our navigational software is via a computer with a 9"x14.5" screen connected to a GPS puck. When through cruising for the day we disconnect the computer from the dedicated inverter located at the upper helm station and bring it below where we can re-connect to an inverter in the salon to plan the next day's route. At night the computer is put away in its mostly air-tight traveling bag. We do 100% of our cruising from the upper helm station and made a couple of significant changes to it over the years. I built a hard top cover for the helm station, built an eyebrow and extended it in front of the helm station, then built a glass window across the front of the helm station (which matches the angle of the glass windows below). I then added windshield wipers to the glass windows ensuring great forward visibility regardless of inclement weather. What we learned in our numerous trip to S.E. Alaska and/or to northern British Columbia is that we would rather look down on waves and swells from the upper helm station than we would look upwards from the lower station. This brings me to another concern about the 'ideal' cruising vessel-namely its size...
I would suggest that a larger vessel, in and of itself, will be safer and more comfortable than a smaller one. Yet, except for just a couple of places between Washington State and S.E. Alaska, most of the distance is in protected, inside waters. The notable exceptions include the Strait of Georgia, Queen Charlotte Sound and Dixon Entrance. Thus, virtually any well found vessel can safely round trip to Alaska along the Inside Passage. A larger vessel besides being roomier within, typically has more amenities so that the larger size is of itself more comfortable. Our vessel, for instance, at 32' has a 3 burner (propane) stove and oven. Our former 28' vessel had a two burner alcohol stove without an oven. Home made bread fresh from the oven is sure a treat! A roomier stateroom and spacious salon are pluses as well.
Let's consider size of vessel and size of swells for a moment. Assume that a 30' vessel comfortably handles a 3' swell, a 40' vessel handles a 4' swell, 50' vessel-a 5' swell. I am not aware of a universal formula such that for every 10' of vessel you can add 1' of swell comfort, but it makes sense that this is true. A friend of mine in his 60' boat thinks nothing of cruising in small craft advisory winds while I hide for another day in my safe cove. To conclude, a larger vessel can take larger seas in comfort and due to its larger size affords a greater degree of comfort. Yet, there is such a thing as too large a vessel, right? There are numerous anchorages that our 32' boat can navigate in comfort that would preclude anchoring of a 60' vessel. One of the anchorages in my mind has a very tight corner that needs to be made upon entry and others are so small that a larger vessel wouldn't have enough swinging room when anchored.
To conclude, whatever size or type of vessel that you currently own, make it as sound a boat as you can and head north. Don't wait! If you currently don't have a vessel I hope that the comments above will provide you with some ideas about what your 'ideal boat' should be.
Whether cruising all the way to S.E. Alaska or a shorter trip along the beautiful Inside Passage through British Columbia, most small vessel owners, power or sail, will have understandable and common concerns about the cruise.
1. One of the first concerns is the worthiness of the vessel as pertains to two major issues, namely safety and comfort. I have been cruising for close to 40 years in the Pacific Northwest typically spending two to three months traveling along the Inside Passage in our 32' powerboat. In general, the larger the vessel, one can expect greater safety and comfort both. Yet, most boaters start with a small vessel taking short trips and with time and experience add destinations further north. So, what is a 'safe' vessel?
By definition I would propose that a vessel in reasonable seaworthy shape that is skippered by an experienced and knowledgeable captain and crew could travel the Inside Passage in safety almost regardless of the type of vessel or its size. Small sailboats have sailed around the world for years as have powerboats in the recent past. Thus, traveling in sheltered water along the coastline should not be a major concern for most boaters. Understanding tides and currents, being knowledgeable about weather, knowing how to cruise in thick fog, plot a route and how to anchor are other factors that should be thoroughly understood prior to undertaking a long distance cruise. Knowing the characteristics of ones vessel and its ability to handle stormy conditions is also a given.
My recommendation for cruising the distance to S.E. Alaska is to have a well found vessel, have local cruising experience and leave the dock sooner in your life than later. Too often we have prior conditions that impact our choices making major adventures in life very difficult to experience. For instance, monetary concerns impact the size, type, age and condition of the vessel itself. Too often boaters think that they just have to have a ' better' boat or 'more' equipment, or more money in the bank to undertake a major cruise. Let's face it, when sitting in a nursing home someday will you be able to talk fondly of the experiences you've had in your lifetime or the amount of money in your bank account, how often you purchased a new car, the size of your home, or the length of your boat? I hope you will agree that 'things' can be replaced, but memories can never be.
Another issue for many pertains to health factors. It is extremely important, especially in remote locations, to have good health! Yet, the older we get, the more likely we are to have health issues. Therefore, just as it doesn't make sense to wait for enough funds, it doesn't make sense to wait until we are old and decrepit!
The other issue (excuse) for putting off an extended cruise is the lack of time. For those who are employees, getting a paid or unpaid leave of absence from a job can be a major issue. Perhaps though, there are ways to make your dream trip a reality other than waiting until you are retired. Throughout my own life I have been self employed. Thus, when I took time off for a cruise, not only did I need to cover on-going living expenses, but also lack of income due to the fact that I couldn't make a sale while gone. All but the best of customers won't wait an extended period of time for you to return. Thus it was necessary for me, in order to take two or three months off, to work harder during the nine or ten months that I wasn't cruising. If your lifestyle is predicated on your job, perhaps you should change the emphasis. Make your job fit your lifestyle!
I would like to add the fact that a round trip to Alaska just can't be done adequately in a short period of time. Our vessel travels at close to 7 knots of speed. A cruise to Alaska from my home port is a distance of 1,000 miles each direction. Divide the round trip distance of 2,000 miles by 7 equals 286 hours of travel. In a 12 hour travel window one would need to cover 24 miles each and every day. Stated another way, at my boat speed, it would take me 24 days of travel putting in 12 hour days just to travel the distance. I don't know about you, but when I go cruising I frequently spend a day or two at many anchorage sites. I frequently travel for three or four hours each day from scenic location to the next one. And then, of course, there are going to be gale and storm force winds that impact travel plans.
To conclude... See what you can do creatively to make your dream cruise come true. You just might discover that your trip of a lifetime actually came to you multiple times instead of just once.
2. The other factor, beyond safety, is comfort. A larger salon, spacious master stateroom, nicer skiff, modern galley fixtures... are nice to have, but again, are they necessary? I guess for some people there are minimal features that must be aboard a vessel in order to meet ones' comfort level. We all have minimum requirements. I would urge you to seriously consider, 'how low can you go?' At the very least one needs to account for the comfort levels of each person on the cruise. It doesn't make sense to spend quality time in an inferior, hateful and grossly inadequate vessel. Yet, looking at a calving glacier nearby, snow capped mountains, the brown bear walking a shoreline ... don't require top of the line sleeping accommodations, or a new stove. Some of my fondest memories are of camping trips in a tent and early ocean cruises in a 17' aluminum boat powered by a stinky 90 h.p outboard engine. Ask yourself how you can make your dream cruise happen in the near future. Remember that as you get older, have longer vacation times available, have more money in the bank, a larger boat, etc. you are able to cruise in style. Decide for yourself, what exactly is style?
The next blog will focus on choosing the best vessel for cruising. Stay tuned sail boaters, planing hull power boaters, and trawler boat owners. Still other blogs will focus on destinations along the inside passage, handling tidal rapids and traveling for hours in fog.
Cruising the Inside Passage to Central or Northern British Columbia or even further, to S.E. Alaska, is for many small boaters the cruise of a lifetime. The first time boaters have understandable concerns about the adequacy of their vessel, weather concerns, routes, anchorages, provisioning and more. Dealing with extensive fog and transiting tidal rapids along the way can be of major concern as is the crossing of large bodies of water that will need to be handled along the chosen route. The author and his wife have cruised the Inside Passage to S.E. Alaska and have come to know the choice anchorage sites both along the well traveled routes and those that are seldomly visited. Future blogs will detail the above information so check with this website regularly. Boating seminars are also available for those seeking further information as well.