Rugged Boats of The Pacific Northwest

By Rich Armstrong & Mark Corke

The Pacific Northwest is one of the most diverse boating playgrounds — and so are the boats and boaters calling it home. Here's a look at what makes this place special.

Nordlund Yachtfisher navigates Desolation SoundThis custom Nordlund 110-foot yachtfisher, built in Tacoma, Washington, navigates Desolation Sound, British Columbia. (Photo: ©Neil Rabinowitz 2017)

The Pacific Northwest is known for big tides, rocky shores, cold water, deserted destinations, and a rainy season that generally stretches from October through April.

So why are there so many passionate recreational boaters in Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Canada's British Columbia?

Pacific Northwest mapPhoto: Thinkstockphotos.com/jongorr

"There's a sense of independence among the boating public here," says George Harris, president of the Northwest Marine Trade Association, which represents the region's marine businesses. "Our rainy season doesn't slow us down. We just go for it. We have boating year-round."

Cooler temperatures and frequent rains mean that many of the boats have protected interior spaces. In Florida and the south, it's all about staying cool while being outside and enjoying the sun. In the Northwest, you'll frequently find boats with heaters to keep the interior of the boat dry and make the shoulder seasons more tolerable when the mercury drops.

Despite the weather, passionate anglers like Harris are chasing fish regardless of the calendar. "If you're really serious about angling for salmon or bottom fish, you are fishing year-round," he says. And cruisers don't let the absence of a blue-sky day keep them at the dock, either.

Duckworth Ultramagnum rocks reflectionAluminum hulls, like on this Duckworth, are a regional favorite given the area's rocky coastlines and floating debris from lush forests.

It's not hard to find agreement on the hardiness of Pacific Northwest boaters.

"Owners of our boats are out year-round. The only thing likely to stop them is ice. These are dedicated, hardcore boaters," says Bruce Larson, marketing and sales director for Renaissance Marine Group of Clarkston, Washington, which builds the modestly sized aluminum pilothouse and fishing boat brands Duckworth, Weldcraft, and Northwest Boats. "I think what differentiates the Pacific Northwest boater from boaters in other parts of the country is that he or she is prepared to go out in colder climates and the boat has to be built to handle that."

Boating Playground

While recreational fishing looms large in the Pacific Northwest, there are plenty of cruising boats, too. Puget Sound (the second largest estuary in the United States, behind Chesapeake Bay) and the waters around Vancouver Island and Desolation Sound off the British Columbia coastline are popular destinations, but for those wanting the ultimate getaway, there's the trip further north up the coast to Alaska.

Sea Sport 26 KodiakBellingham-based Sea Sport boats are known for durability, dependability, and ability to handle rough water.

Just as the Great Loop is a popular bucket-list item for many East Coast boaters, navigating the Inside Passage to Alaska from Puget Sound is on many a must-do list for boaters on the Pacific Coast. Unlike the Great Loop, however, where there's plenty of infrastructure — fuel stops, places to provision, marinas — this is not the case for those embarking on The Big One on the Left Coast. Aside from the major ports of Seattle and Vancouver, marinas and repair facilities could be 70 miles apart. Given the distances between fuel fill ups, boats here needs larger fuel- and water tanks. There's also no towing service north of Vancouver Island, so self-sufficiency is another characteristic of boaters in this region.

The Inside Passage is a major trip, 1,000 miles from Puget Sound to Glacier Bay (just to the north of Juneau) through a network of protected passages that weave through the islands from Washington to southeastern Alaska. Those who make the passage are hooked on the lush, sprawling, mountainous scenery, diverse marine- and wildlife, and ample outdoor recreation opportunities.

Tough As Nails

Just as the Gulf Coast has shrimp boats and the Maine coast has lobster boats, so the Pacific Northwest has trawlers — snub-nosed bluff-bow fishing boats designed for punching through big seas.

Sam Devlin, a venerable wooden-boat builder in Olympia, Washington, notes that the Pacific Northwest is on the windward side of the Pacific Ocean.

"The wind and waves have had thousands of miles to develop before they get to us, and that has a unique bearing on the shape and design of our boats up here," he says. "The most seaworthy boats tend to be heavy with a high freeboard."

American Tug Sequel 14Enclosed boats like this American Tug provide warmth and shelter from the rain and fog common to the region.

While there are plenty of thick-hulled fiberglass boats here, such as the C-Dory, Osprey, Tomcat, and Skagit Orca, modestly-sized cabin sportfish boats built by Northwest Marine Industries of Bellingham, Washington, you'll find lots of metal boats here, too. Aluminum has long been a favorite of the region. With the famous rocky shorelines and floating logs from the region's lush forestry as frequent navigational hazards, aluminum boats can take a beating that would sink any other craft. It's not just larger boats either; there are plenty of smaller bass boats, dual consoles, and runabouts less than 20 feet built from aluminum, including Weldcraft, Raider, and Hewescraft.

Because rain and fog are frequent visitors, a cabin or pilothouse for protection from the elements, and heat, since it can get cold at night even during the summer, are must-haves (the water temps rarely venture out of the 50s year-round). On the larger size, some of the major players in the recreational trawler boat market — American Tug, Ranger, and Nordic Tugs — call the Northwest home.

Northwestern coastline cruisingPhoto: ©Neil Rabinowitz 2017

The Waggoner Cruising Guide is known as "the bible for Northwest Cruising," because mariners who call the region their home waters update it annually. Beyond covering each cruising area along with detailed listings of moorage and fuel facilities, diagrams of more than 150 marinas, color photos, and maps, there is plenty of local flavor and insight on ports and anchorages throughout. You can purchase the guide at waggonerguide.com, but the site also has a lot of great information including cruising reports, updates, flotilla and seminar info, free downloads, and much more.

Trawler Yachts

In case you assume there's not much difference between East- and West-Coast boaters, consider the fact that American Tug specs its boats differently depending on where they are to be used. West-Coast boats come with diesel heaters as standard, while those destined for the East Coast are more likely to come with air conditioning.

Made in LaConner, Washington, American Tugs are quintessentially Northwestern in character. The boats have high bows for bearing to windward, a large single engine for fuel economy, and "reverse windshields," which are pilothouse windows that slant inward from top to bottom to shed rain and snow.

American Tugs builds four models from 36 to 49 feet. All the models have a range in excess of 1,000 miles when traveling at displacement speeds, but they do have the ability to nudge the speedometer well into double-digits — handy for outrunning poor weather. These boats are not designed for tight schedules, though; they appeal to long-distance cruisers and liveaboards, neither of which is likely to be in any hurry.

Ranger Tug owners raft up at Desolation SoundDesolation Sound, off the British Columbia coastline, is among the most popular destinations for boaters, who often cruise in company and raft up amid the tranquil setting, like these Ranger Tug owners.

Ranger Tugs has, to some extent, redefined the tug/trawler market and has become hugely popular for the Kent, Washington, builder (which also builds the more contemporary-designed Cutwater brand of cruising boats). Outwardly, Rangers have a passing nod to the workboats of the Puget Sound waterfront. An eyebrow over the forward pilothouse windows and faux vertical wood paneling molded into the cabin trunk are just some of the features that give these boats a workmanlike air.

The Ranger line ranges from its trailerable 21-foot pocket tug to the largest boat in their lineup, the new 31-footer. The latter features two doubles in separate cabins, two heads, full galley, a dinette, and spacious cockpit aft with an innovative fold-down seat on the gunwales to further open up the cockpit when the boat is at anchor or tied to the dock. The 31 starts at about $320,000.

Under the cockpit sole is a single 300-hp Volvo diesel that will propel the boat to a brisk cruising speed of 16 knots. Like the American Tugs, the Ranger 31 comes essentially in two versions: The Northwest version has forced diesel heat, while the East Coast version adds a generator and air conditioning. Despite weighing 11,000 pounds, it is possible to tow this boat behind a large truck, and Ranger will sell you a three-axle trailer to go with the boat, thus opening up cruising areas not normally available to larger vessels.

"A good proportion of our owners are retired or planning to retire and go cruising, and they are looking for boats they can spend a good amount of time on," says Jeff Messmer, vice president of Ranger. "Our boats are ideal for the waters of the Northwest. We equip them with large tanks so folks can stay away from the dock for an extended period," he adds. New owners can take delivery in Puget Sound, cruise the Northwest waters, some as far as Alaska, then return the boat to the factory where it's shrinkwrapped and delivered it to the owner's local dealer for recommissioning.

Sam Devlin: Mr. Stitch-N-Glue

While fiberglass and aluminum are the most popular materials for Pacific Northwest boats, there is a notable exception — Olympia, Washington-based designer and builder Sam Devlin, who since 1978 has been building in plywood.

He still uses the "stitch-and-glue" method of boatbuilding, where accurately cut plywood parts are temporarily tied together with copper wires. The panels are glued together using epoxy resin and fiberglass tape forming the boat into a rigid and strong monocoque structure. His six-man Devlin Designing Boat Builders shop has built more than 400 boats. He also sells plans for many of his designs, so the total stable of boats to his designs afloat runs into the thousands, he estimates.

Stitch-and-glue boat buildingPhoto: ©Neil Rabinowitz 2017

Devlin designs and builds power, sail, and human-powered boats across the size spectrum. He says workboats around his Puget Sound home have influenced designs like his Oysta motorsailer and Sockeye 45.

"There's been a lot of immigration over the years from Norway," says Devlin. "There are a lot of double-enders there, and that's definitely had an influence on the boats of the Pacific Northwest."

Fish Boats

The rugged boats from the likes of Hewescraft and the plethora of other aluminum boatbuilders are built for one thing, and that's fishing. Largely devoid of unnecessary bells and whistles, they're practical, utilitarian, and tough, and therein lies their beauty.

According to sales data, Washington has seen a significant increase in new aluminum boat sales in the last five years — and aluminum boat sales are now equal to fiberglass boat sales.

Famed for their ruggedness and longevity, aluminum recreational boats emerged following World War II. After years of mass-producing aircraft from aluminum for the war effort (Boeing is headquartered here), workers transferred their skills to producing boats during peacetime. Early boats were riveted construction, but builders such as Hewescraft, Duckworth, Weldcraft, and Raider have transitioned to all-welded construction for a stiffer, lighter boat with less chance of leaking.

Hewescraft manufactures boats from 16 to 26 feet, and almost all come with or can be specified with some sort of pilothouse or cuddy cabin. The 19-foot Searunner can be had for around $48,000, which includes a trailer. Powered by a 150-hp Yamaha outboard, there's room for four to sit on shock-absorbing seats in the cabin on the way to and from the fishing grounds. Like the hull, the cabin is made from aluminum and features glass windows with wipers to swish away the rain. With a dry weight of 2,300 pounds, this is light boat, so the 60-gallon fuel tank should carry you some distance between refills.

Charter In The PNW

The lush, soaring scenery and abundance of quiet anchorages make the Pacific Northwest region a paradise for locals and a bucket-list item for boaters everywhere else. While getting your own boat there may be prohibitive, a well-seasoned fleet of charter boat crews is waiting.

The most popular cruising destinations in the region are the San Juan Islands, Desolation Sound, and Vancouver Island.

Family chartering a boat in the Pacific NorthwestPhoto: Anacortes Yacht Charters

The San Juan Islands are an archipelago at the northernmost part of Puget Sound, which is part of the Salish Sea, known for a temperate year-round climate and a relaxed "island vibe." There are 172 named islands and reefs, but San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw islands are the most populous.

British Columbia's Vancouver Island is known for its diverse ecosystems, including rainforests and abundant wildlife that makes it a premier location for whale watching, salmon and trout fishing, and birding. Victoria and Sidney on the southern shore are among the most popular destination ports.

British Columbia's Desolation Sound, north of the Straight of Georgia in the Salish Sea, is a sprawling deep-water sound that meanders through a dozens of soaring glacier-formed islands and fjords marked by snowcapped peaks, lush foliage, and waterfalls. Dozens of inlets, bays, coves and anchorages can be found in the temperate, calm, and sheltered water. It is considered to be one of the top cruising grounds in the world.

Anacortes Yacht Charters (AYC) boasts a fleet of nearly 80 boats. Charters are run year-round, but high season is May through September. Most of its customers are boat owners from across the country, says Danielle Vincent, who handles reservations and marketing for AYC.

"All of our charters are bareboat, so boating experience is a must," she says. "If you don't have boating experience, we can refer you to classes, one-on-one training, or a full-time skipper. We have had growth in new boaters through our classes and Cruise ‘N' Learn instruction." The San Juan Islands are AYC's most popular destination and have something for everyone — scenery, anchorages, fishing, and cruising.

"You can be in a quiet cove one night, eating Dungeness crab and watching the sunset, or in a bustling harbor, shopping for regional art," she says. "The wildlife is abundant, and our mountain ranges really paint a scene. Most people charter for a week or more."

There are numerous charter outfits to get you out. Here's a list to you get started:

Anacortes Yacht Charters  
Anacortes, Washington
(800) 233-3004

Bellhaven Yacht Sales & Charters
Bellingham, Washington
(360) 733-6636

Bellingham Yacht Sales & Charters
Bellingham, Washington
(360) 671-0990

Crown Yacht Charters
Anacortes, Washington
(360) 293-9533

Desolation Sound Yacht Charters
Comox, British Columbia
(250) 339-4914

NW Explorations
Bellingham, Washington
(360) 676-1248

San Juan Sailing & Yachting
Bellingham, Washington
(360) 671-4300

Ship Harbor Yacht Charters
Anacortes, Washington
(360) 299-9193

Viaggio Charters  
Seattle, Washington
(360) 909-9994

 These BoatUS partners offers exclusive member discounts. Visit BoatUS.com/Map to search for these and others. 

— Published: December 2017


BoatUS Magazine Is A Benefit Of BoatUS Membership

Membership Also Provides:

  • Subscription to the print version of BoatUS Magazine
  • 4% back on purchases from West Marine stores or online at WestMarine.com
  • Discounts on fuel, transient slips, repairs and more at over 1,000 businesses
  • Deals on cruises, charters, car rentals, hotel stays and more ...
  • All For Only $24 A Year!

Join Today!