The opening of the Northwest Passage along the ice filled northern coast of North America has created a new route for accessing the Pacific Northwest cruising grounds.
Historically, yachts from south Florida were required to transit the Panama Canal, either wet or by transport, to Seattle or Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Boaters have always been drawn to the Northwest by its: rugged scenery; marine and shoreline wildlife viewing; excellent fishing (salmon, halibut and Dungeness crab to name a few species); and long summer days. On June 21st, the summer solstice, the sun sets at 11:42 p.m. in Anchorage, Alaska.
Pacific Northwest cruising frequently begins with entry into the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the Pacific Ocean, forming the international boundary between the U. S. and Canada. Cruising south, boaters enter Washington State’s Puget Sound, home to Seattle 60 miles away.
Puget Sound waters, particularly in and around the San Juan Islands, are home to migrating Orca whales. The area is bounded by the snowcapped peaks in the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges.
Washington is home to many superyacht builders, including Christensen, Delta, Nordhavn, Northcoast, Northern Marine and Westport. The state also has plenty of superyacht repair facilities to ready vessels for trips to the south Pacific, south Florida or on to Asia.
After leaving Seattle, boaters can travel north 75 miles to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada or 135 miles to Vancouver, B.C. British Columbia is home to Crescent, Queenship and West Bay Sonship shipyards. Repair facilities are also available.
As boaters travel north through the B.C. Inside Passage with Vancouver Island to the west and the British Columbia mainland to the east, big city life is quickly left behind. It is replaced with tidewater estuaries, seemingly endless evergreen forests, seals and sea birds. Sea kayaking and mountaineering are popular attractions for fitness minded boaters.
As boaters cruise north through British Columbia waters and enter Alaska, the first major destinations are normally Ketchikan or Wrangell, after clearing Customs. Both are about 60 miles from the Canadian border.
Ketchikan is known as the gateway to Alaska. The Southeast Alaska Discovery Center in Ketchikan is a good place for boaters to get statewide information. Some boaters take on naturalists for the journey.
Southeast Alaska is home to national parks offering pristine wilderness and excellent wildlife viewing. The Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is the largest U.S. National Park, six times the size of Yellowstone National Park. Four major mountain ranges meet there, and include nine of the sixteen highest peaks in the United States.
Alaska is the largest state in the union: one-fifth of the lower forty-eight. Alaska is larger than the next three largest states combined.
Most boaters cruising the Pacific Northwest during the summer season will not venture north of Southeast Alaska. The cruising grounds between Ketchikan in the south and Skagway in the north are filled with protected bays, islands and marinas offering moorage. It comprises an area roughly 350 miles long by 50 miles wide.
The marine wilderness of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is a must see. It includes tidewater glaciers, snowcapped mountain ranges, and freshwater rivers and lakes. The glaciers are remnants of the Little Ice Age that began 4,000 years ago.
Permits are required to enter Glacier Bay by private boat, and applications must be made within 60-days of proposed entry.
Seaplanes are abundant in Alaska, offering access to otherwise inaccessible fishing grounds on rivers and lakes away from the coast. The salmon fishing grounds on rivers attract numerous bears, which gorge on salmon returning from the sea, storing fat for their winter hibernation.
Local taxes are an issue for boaters everywhere. In the Pacific Northwest, exemptions apply for non-resident boaters in Washington and British Columbia waters. Alaska does not have a statewide sales tax, and its city and borough taxes are capped so low that they are not of concern.
Pilotage rules apply throughout the Pacific Northwest and vary in the three areas. Depending in part on the registration and size of yachts, and captains’ familiarity with Northwest waters, pilotage exemptions exist. Some jurisdictions allow captains with local knowledge to be brought onboard for extended cruises, to eliminate the need for pilots.
Fred Robinson is an attorney in Seattle with the firm of Carney Badley Spellman, P.S. and works closely with yacht owners.