Woody Trip Report – Inside Passage Cruise


Story & photos by CYA NZ member Denis O’Callahan (owner of MV Tasman)

Today’s post tells the story of Judy & Denis O’Callahan’s adventure cruise – its a great read, so I’ll let Denis tell the story. Enjoy 🙂

 “In April 2000 I was invited by a Canadian friend to help launch a boat which his brother Wayne had built on Thetis Island in the Strait of Georgia near Vancouver. The “Grail Dancer” is 48’ on the deck, ketch rigged and based on the lines of the “Emma C Berry”, a 150 year old traditional fishing boat now preserved at the Mystic Seaport Museum, Connecticut. Wayne works as a wooden boat builder and restorer who at that time was restoring historic paddle steamers at Fort Dawson and Whitehorse on the Yukon River during the summer. During the winter he worked on the “Grail Dancer” which took him 14 years to complete. This trip was a great experience which gave me an inkling of what a wonderful cruising ground the Inside Passage to Alaska would be. This was further reinforced when I read the great book, “Passage to Juneau” by Johnathan Raban.

Eventually this year my wife Judy and I planned a visit to Vancouver and Alaska, including an adventure cruise of the Inside Passage. Our first stop was Vancouver, from where we took a float plane to Victoria on Vancouver Island to spend a couple of days with friends who live near Nanaimo. On the way north from Victoria we called in at the small fishing port of Cowichan where I was able to see a converted fishing boat, “Morseby III”, which belongs to a guy I know who lives at Mangawhai. We flew back to Vancouver from Nanaimo and had a couple of days there including a visit to the excellent Maritime Museum. Here there is preserved the wooden auxiliary schooner St Roch, built in 1928 in Vancouver and operated by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In 1942 St Roch completed the first voyage from the Pacific to the Atlantic through the Northwest Passage, 27 months from Vancouver to Halifax and spending 2 winters in the ice. In Halifax her engine was upgraded from 150hp to 300hp and she made the return journey in 1944 in 86 days.

Next we boarded the Alaska Marine Highway ferry “Columbia” for a 2 night, 1 day voyage from Bellingham to Ketchikan. This was rather like a Cook Strait ferry and while we had a comfortable cabin many hardy souls camped in deck, fixing their tents down with duct tape. We saw a number of other boats during this trip, huge barges laden with containers and trucks, cruise ships, fishing boats, pleasure boats and some of the contestants in the inaugural “Race to Alaska” (R2AK). R2AK is open to any kind of boat without an engine, from kayaks to racing trimarans, 750 miles from Port Townsend to Ketchikan. First prize, $10,000, second prize, a set of steak knives. The ferry passed through many spectacular narrows and channels and at Bella Bella we stopped while the crew lowered the anchors to demonstrate compliance with US Coast Guard requirements.

Ketchikan is a busy port town with floating docks and other marine facilities. However during the summer it is dominated by up to 4 giant cruise ships visiting each day. A large marina (“floats” in the local lingo) accommodates a variety of fishing and pleasure craft. The salmon fishing boats are divided into 3 types, purse seiners which go for large volume, low value fish, gill netters which aim for better quality and trollers which target the top quality product. Long-liners target halibut, a kind of gigantic deep water flounder which can grow up to 200kg.

We took a 10 day adventure cruise on the “Alaska Dream”, a 104’ catamaran, rather like a Waiheke ferry with cabins for 40 passengers and a crew of 17. We strongly recommend this as a way to see the Inside Passage. Activities included walks ashore, railway excursions, kayaking and even swimming. We saw amazing wild life, indigenous culture, glaciers and fishing ports, including Sitka, Skagway, Haines, Juneau, Petersburg, Wrangell, Thorne Bay, Matlakatia and Ketchican. In every port there were numerous classic wooden fishing vessels in varying states of preservation. I would estimate that 90% of the working fishing boats around the Inside Passage are of wooden construction. The plentiful supply of rot resistant old growth Yellow Cedar and Western Red Cedar no doubt accounts for the durability of these vessels”

4 thoughts on “Woody Trip Report – Inside Passage Cruise

  1. Thanks for the comments John. The Emma C Berry is now carrying her original rig as a gaff sloop, however she was schooner rigged for much of her working life. In describing Grail Dance as a ketch I was quoting Wayne at the time I was in contact with him about getting traditional sails made by Doyles in Nelson. At the time of launching he was undecided on the rig. Looking at recent photographs the masts appear equal height so I don’t know what that makes her.


  2. Alaska always reminds us of Princess Diana, she died the day we arrived.
    The salmon spawning was drawing to an end with thousands upon thousands of fish laying dead and dying in the rivers, streams and inlets. One can imagine the overwhelming stench which brought in the eagles and other wild life. Didn’t see any bears but no doubt they were there, further up the waterways. Many of the boats reminded us somewhat of our South Island vessels, seriously tough, hardy and built to endure big seas.


  3. Denis O’Callahan (as “Doc” O’Callahan) was the brains behind the Radio Hauraki radio transmitter that he designed, constructed and kept going in the Gulf during those wonderful Pirate Radio Station years. He’s probably done more sea time and been through more adventure on the high seas than most of us.


  4. Marvellous! Both the Inside Passage and the salmon troller fleet have fascinated me for years. Those salmon trollers are better boats for conversion to pleasure than many fishing boat types. Loved the photos.
    One point, though; the “Emma C. Berry” preserved at Mystic is a schooner, and so, quite plainly is the “Grail Dancer”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s