I was particularly excited to learn that Northern Marine, known for its superb long-range expedition yachts, is back in operation. The yacht builder, based in Anacortes, Washington, has had its ups and downs in recent years, the most recent the untimely death of its owner. This is a shame, as Northern Marine is, in my experienced opinion, somewhat of the gold standard for expedition yachts operated without professional crew. Sure, there are other yards out there building long-range passagemakers to high standards, but the yachts from Northern Marine have a different heritage from most pleasure boats, and the difference is striking.
I first got to know the trawlers of Northern Marine in 1998 when I did a boat tour of Spirit of Zopilote, a new 62-foot expedition yacht built for Bruce and Joan Kessler. The 66-ton trawler was the first yacht from the new company. The production manager brought over two decades of experience at Delta Marine and was well versed in commercial boat building. Both co-founder Cliff Rome and Bruce Kessler had once owned Delta 70-foot trawlers and agreed these yachts were just too big. Something along the lines of 58 feet or so made more sense. This collaboration was the genesis of the new company.
My boat tour was so filled with interesting and unique information that my article was over 20 pages long, which is unheard of in magazine publishing. But everyone loved the depth of detail.
In the decades since, the company has continued evolving the long-range expedition yacht concept, gaining ever-increasing experience building 41 world-class yachts, each better than the last. New building techniques and technology allow the craftsmen to strengthen and reinforce fiberglass hulls, improve all systems with new levels of integration, and provide owners with the highest standards of finish and luxury appointments, essentially megayacht quality in a boat operated by a couple. Yet throughout this time, the company continues to pursue the basic premise of the ideal trawler-style yacht: seaworthy, quiet, comfortable, with plenty of room for fuel and stores.
So, the recent acquisition by Seattle Yachts is both welcomed and well timed. The work force can continue their mission. I have always been impressed by what boat builders, with experience building seagoing commercial fishing boats, bring to the table. Boats considered industrial strength, designed and engineered without compromise to keep the crew safe and protected in any kind of weather. Time is money, and there is no money to be made with breakdowns or equipment failures. Every component of every system must be carefully selected as the best solution for the job.
I spoke with Peter Whiting, partner of Seattle Yachts, about the recent acquisition. Peter is aware of the history and players of Northern Marine and is confident that the builder can now get back on track as the premier American yacht builder of long-range expedition yachts in this size range. Northern Marine is now the only yard in America to do so, a distinction that anyone looking to own one should carefully consider.
What makes these boats different from the pleasure boat trawlers developed since the late 1990s? In part, it comes from the commercial heritage. In typical pleasure boat construction, a boat is drawn by a designer, and then the builder figures out where to put all the equipment. If you have ever gone aboard some of these production trawlers at a boat show, this explains why one may find an oddly-placed, skinny access door into the engine room from the master stateroom or through the shower, or stabilizer actuators located inside furniture in a stateroom or other living space. Or an exhaust system that one must climb over to reach the fuel filters on the far side of the engine. And the pleasure boat practice that was popular years ago, of hiding all wiring and hoses and pumps out of sight, was to appeal to potential buyers used to a Mercedes or Lexus (when nothing under the hood is accessible). I recall many heated discussions with representatives from those companies, as I argued that was just plain wrong.
Spend time at the International Workboat Show in New Orleans, and you may get a glimpse of what I am talking about. Tugs, vessel supply boats, and offshore fishing boats are built with serious components that one won’t find at your local West Marine. Massive hydraulic windlasses, commercial fuel filling capability, pressurized engine rooms, paddle-wheel sight flow indicators on all hoses for easy visual inspection, sea chests to minimize through hulls, 360-degree engine access, articulated rudders, redundant autopilot systems, workbenches in stand up engine rooms, lube oil tanks, pre-lubing system to circulate oil before and after an engine runs, mechanical Murphy gauges on main engines to monitor oil and cooling water levels under way…the list goes on.
Need an analogy here? If Kenworth Trucks decided to create an expedition RV, I guarantee the vehicle would be vastly different from what Winnebago might come up with. Both are well-respected American brands, but the design spiral used by each is decidedly different, with different priorities. And it shows in these boats, especially when looking beyond the gorgeous, luxury interiors.
Experienced builder and designer Stuart Archer manages the Northern Marine operation today, and he views their big boat, commercial heritage as polar opposite from the pleasure boat industry. “Given where we came from, with a big boat mentality on all systems and equipment,” he told me, “we now must find ways to fit big boat components into the size of the trawlers we now build.”
Northern Marine is always looking for new ways to build a better, stronger, safer boat. The company pioneered a keel cooled, wet exhaust hybrid system that is the best of both dry and wet exhaust systems. The company is also known for its resin-infused fiberglass construction and reinforced hulls and bulbous bows.
Integrate the above focus with teams of highly skilled and experienced craftsmen capable of creating the most luxurious interiors and accommodations using the finest materials and finishes, hardwoods, granite, tile, appliances, and comfort systems. This is Northern Marine today, some 25 years later.
I have many fond memories of being aboard Northern Marine yachts. One that captures the essence of the expedition trawler lifestyle was when we anchored just off the beach in Thorne Arm, Misty Fjords National Monument. Not a soul in sight, no contrails in the sky. The four of us enjoyed a wonderful gourmet dinner seated at the dedicated dining table and armchairs, classic music playing quietly in the background. We watched a bear stroll along the beach, and as Joan turned off the music, an eagle landed on a tree branch not 50 yards from us. It was a magical moment, not a sound in the world save the faint hum of one of the boat’s 15kW generators.
On the same trip, and to emphasize the big ship capability of this Northern Marine yacht, when we approached a municipal marina in Ketchikan, Alaska, we encountered a strong wind blowing us off the dock. Bruce Kessler had my diminutive wife up on the flybridge, pushing both stern and bow thrusters’ joysticks in order to hold us next to the dock against the howling wind, while Bruce and I took our time to safely get our dock lines around massive bollards. Having two 30-horsepower, continuous-duty hydraulic thrusters made all the difference, eliminating the stress of what could have been a difficult situation. No electric thruster would have made the grade.
Months later, I enjoyed when the 64-foot Zeehaen arrived in Annapolis on its way up the coast. People on the East Coast were not familiar with this style of trawler yacht and at one point, the owner hosted a reception for a group of his new friends. Everyone’s eyes were wide open that evening, taking in the beauty of this comfortable yet elegantly sophisticated interior in a boat that looked utterly bulletproof, the very definition of rugged adventure. A very young James Knight (of Yacht Tech fame today) was on a nearby Nordhavn 46, and I remember his steady stare at the towering presence of this Northern Marine 64.
Stuart told me he is successfully getting his team back together, lead carpenters, mechanical techs, electricians, painters, and fiberglass crew and they are ready to move forward. He said their market niche has always been between 55 and 90 feet, as most couples feel that is as large as one couple can handle without crew.
Peter Whiting said they’ve started a 57-footer, and it is not too far along, so buyers could still have his and her tastes and preferences incorporated into the new boat.
I wish the Northern Marine team great success after the last few years of various difficulties. Now with the solid support and resources of the Seattle Yachts organization, the team can concentrate on what they do best: building world-class long-range expedition trawlers right here in Anacortes, Washington, fulfilling one dream at a time. As if to underscore the dream factor, Stuart added that he’s seen it over and over.
“The build process is every bit as exciting as using their new boat.”
I will follow the construction of this new Northern Marine 57, reporting on the progress, so stay tuned. Perhaps we can share in some of the excitement of the build process together. And if you happen to be the lucky couple who step up and make this raised pilothouse trawler your own, congratulations. You will own one of the finest expedition yachts in the world.