Boating conditions in the Pacific Northwest can quickly turn challenging. Leave Sucia Island at the southern end of the Strait of Georgia on a calm summer day, and in minutes you can find yourself in 4- to 6-foot waves. Or, motor through Cattle Pass at the south end of San Juan Island near the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the currents can be frightening. Round Strawberry Point toward Oak Harbor in opposing wind and current and Saratoga Passage can serve up steep waves and confused seas.
Throw in water cold enough to kill you, rocky coasts, lots of debris—including deadhead logs—and you’ll want to be in a tough boat.
Fortunately, the Pacific Northwest has plenty of boatbuilders whose designs can handle the conditions. Whether it’s Nordic Tugs, Ranger Tugs, North Pacific Yachts, American Tug or Helmsman Trawlers, you’ll get a vessel from people who know how to handle tricky waters.
Ben Wilde ordered a Nordic Tugs 37 in January 2000. That spring, he took delivery and instantly fell in love, so much so that a few months later, he was a Nordic Tugs dealer. Today, Wilde Yacht Sales, with offices in Essex, Connecticut, and Rock Hall, Maryland, is Nordic Tugs’ largest dealer.
“They’re built like a tank,” Wilde says, adding that the ability to deal with trees and debris in the Pacific Northwest also makes the boats great for the Erie Canal, the Intracoastal Waterway or New England. “The prop is protected. It’s at least a foot up, and you have a big keel and a stainless-steel shoe,” he says.
Nordic Tugs splashed onto the boating scene at the Seattle Boat Show in 1980 with its first model, the Nordic Tugs 26. At $30,000, with a three-cylinder Volvo diesel that consumed half a gallon of fuel at 6.5 knots, the tug was an instant hit in the aftermath of the 1970s fuel crises. During the 10-day show, 33 Nordic Tugs 26s were sold and by 1997 the company had built 172 of them.
In 1985, Nordic Tugs added a 32-footer to the lineup, and in the 1990s, 42- and 37-footers followed.
Today, Nordic Tugs builds six models with full-keel, semi-displacement hulls from 26 to 54 feet. All models are offered standard with a single-diesel, straight-shaft configuration, although the 54 is now available with twin engines and twin skegs.
The two most recent models are the Nordic Tugs 40 and the Nordic Tugs 44 (flybridges are an option on the 40, 44 and 49, and are standard on the 54). Three 44s are currently under construction at the Nordic Tugs facility in Burlington, Washington, and the company is on the verge of delivering its 900th boat.
Nordic Tugs is a semi-custom builder. “We used to have a West Coast or East Coast, or cold-weather or warm-weather, package,” says Dave Allen, Nordic Tugs director of sales and customer support. “But now every boat we build is the same. The difference is in the options. The customer can have heat, air conditioning or both and our boats get used from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico.”
Wilde says Nordic Tugs are great for extending the Northeast boating season. “You can use it longer because you don’t need perfect weather,” he says. He should know. Since 2000, he has upgraded from the Nordic Tugs 37 to the Nordic Tugs 42 and now owns a 54. “I use my boat all the time,” he says. “Our Northeast owners start in April and go all the way through November.”
Helmsman Trawlers founder Scott Helker knows the kind of boats he wants to build.
“Some people ask, ‘Can you build it taller, with two engines and more staterooms?’,” Helker says. “And the answer is no.” Helker says all those things undermine the Helmsman Trawlers design philosophy. “You can’t be all things to all people,” he says. “If it doesn’t have a full keel and no protective skeg, it’s not a trawler.”
Just ahead of the 2008 recession—before Helker and his wife started Helmsman Trawlers—they purchased a Chinese-built Mariner Seville 37 Pilothouse and were astounded by its build quality.
In 2011, after Mariner succumbed to the economic downturn, they founded Helmsman Trawlers in Seattle. Using the same mold and Chinese yard Mariner had used, they created the Helmsman 38.
Helmsman builds four models from 31 to 43 feet. All have semi-displacement hulls, wide beams, heavy construction and low profiles that favor the displacement end of the performance spectrum. “A lot of people aspire to go to Alaska,” Helker says, “and you need to have a 1,000-mile cruising range to do that.”
Owners cite the large interiors, high build quality, good engine access, excellent pilothouse visibility, reliability and seakeeping ability. “We build a boat for human comfort,” Helker says. “It’s not scary in bad conditions. It’s not rolly, and it tamps down sea conditions.”
He constantly tweaks the existing models. Currently, the Helmsman 43 is being updated with a new outward appearance, to become the 43E.
Helmsman has also been working on a 46-footer—the company’s largest model to date—but because of the ongoing trade war with China, Helker has put that plan on hold.
He recently returned from Savannah, Georgia, where he delivered a Helmsman 43 to an owner in South Carolina.
Helker says Helmsman doesn’t have dealers because owners prefer to directly deal with him and his son Van, who is responsible for customer service and build management. “We’re building a better boat in the midsize trawler range, and it’s working,” he says.
NORTH PACIFIC YACHTS
About 20 years ago, when Trevor Brice and his father, John, were in the market for a pilothouse boat, they couldn’t find what they were looking for, so they decided to design their own boat. They found a hull form they liked (the CHB 38) and took their ideas to a naval architect who turned them into CAD files. “We didn’t want a cute little boat,” Brice says. “We wanted salty.”
His father had been doing business in China since the 1970s, and found a yard to build the boat there. “The original idea was to build a boat for ourselves,” Brice says. Instead they created North Pacific Yachts, and debuted the North Pacific 43 Pilothouse at the 2004 Lake Union Boats Afloat Show in Seattle.
Today, there are four models from 44 to 59 feet, and sales are split evenly between the East and West coasts.
In addition to seaworthiness and stability, the Brices focused on easy maintenance. Hinged service panels, chases and Velcro headliners allow access to systems, plumbing and wiring.
North Pacific Yachts updated its line in 2014 with three Next Generation boats, the 44 Sedan, the 45 Pilothouse—which replaced the original 43 Pilothouse—and the 49 Pilothouse. All three trawlers have the reverse rake pilothouse windows commonly seen on Pacific Coast workboats.
The latest model, the 59, will come standard with twin engines, twin keels and twin skegs. Top speed is expected to be around 17 knots with an estimated cruise of 10 knots at 1600 rpm. The 49 will also be offered with twin power. Although the other three models were originally designed for single inboards, all are available with twin engines.
According to Brice, a lot of North Pacific Yacht features that work for the Pacific Northwest—like the skeg-protected running gear and the covered aft decks that protect you from the rain and sun—also work for Florida and other locations. “You get to boat year-round, regardless of the weather,” he says.
In 2000, three former Nordic Tugs employees—Tom Nelson, Mike Schoppert and Kurt Dilworth—formed Tomco Marine Group to build American Tugs.
To create their first boat, Nelson approached naval architect Lynn Senour (who also designed the Nordic Tugs 26) about a fishing boat Senour had designed in the 1970s. That hull could carry lots of fish and had plenty of horsepower to go to Alaska. It was a beamy design with a hard chine to increase stability and reduce roll. It also had a slightly rounded stern, a common workboat trait in the Pacific Northwest.
The three men located the unused mold in La Conner, Washington, where they set up shop and created the American Tug 34. According to Dilworth, who now serves as co-CEO of Tomco Marine Group with Schoppert, the 34 focused on interior volume. It had 360-degree views of the water, a solid fiberglass hull and forward raking windows that reduced glare, improved visibility and reduced load from any green water that might come over the bow.
Early on, three owners took their 34s down to the Panama Canal and over to the East Coast. More than 50 percent of 34s would be purchased for East Coast use. “We never saw this coming,” Dilworth says. “Over 20 years, we’ve sold just as many boats in Florida as in the Northwest.”
The 34 was eventually replaced by updated and larger models, but its design became the foundation for all American Tugs. The hull lives on in the smallest model, the 365, and in the Waypoint 36, which is expected to debut at the 2020 Seattle Boat Show as an entry-level boat for $350,000—a significant savings compared to the 365, which starts at $480,000.
Dilworth says it was a challenge to get the Waypoint to that lower price point. The boat has interior wood for warmth but uses off-the-shelf upholstery for cost savings. One of the features Dilworth particularly likes is the snap-in/snap-out carpet. It also has a second stateroom and a convertible settee in the salon to sleep six.
American Tug has already launched two Waypoints. The first headed for Alaska, and a third should be in the water soon. Another new product is the twin-engine 395, a first for the company, which has always built single-diesel inboard models. The twin 300-hp engines reportedly give the 395 a top speed of 25 knots.
And even today, American Tug maintains its original focus on interior space. Regardless of the model, Dilworth says. “You can sit in your living room or go cruising, even though it’s only 38 degrees outside.”
David Livingston has had a long career designing boats, starting with his own Livingston dinghies in the 1960s. For years, he designed boats for Bayliner, Reinell, Wellcraft and Regal. In 1999, he and his son John purchased Ranger Tugs. At the time, Ranger built one small tug model: a single-diesel, trailerable 21-footer with an oversized cockpit.
The Livingstons, who own Fluid Motion, builder of Ranger Tugs and Cutwater Boats in Kent, Washington, knew interior space was important, so they redesigned the R-21 and expanded the tiny cabin. In 2006, they introduced the Ranger Tugs R-25, which cemented Ranger Tugs’ reputation.
They then added more trailerable, semi-displacement Ranger Tugs powered by inboard diesels with straight shafts, but more recently, the company added pods and outboards to its lineup. The latest release, the new R-25, sports a 250-hp Yamaha outboard. The Ranger Tugs R-41—the largest model to date—uses twin Volvo Penta pod drives.
The 41 was a big project for the Livingstons. “The TV goes up and down and swivels,” David Livingston says. “It’s got a full washer and dryer in a utility room, stability control, seating that can face forward and aft, a table that opens up, and a lot of little amenities.”
The new outboard-powered R-25 is not a shocking change. They’ve used outboard designs before. “There’s a younger crowd coming into outboard models,” David Livingston says, “and we always want to stay ahead of the market.”
The Livingstons say outboards are getting more economical. “Diesel used to be more efficient,” David says, “but there’s a bit of a misnomer in the industry. People should look at miles per gallon, not gallons per hour. You should look at what it costs to get from A to B.”
Although their single-inboard, straight-shaft models have keels and shoes that give props a lot of protection, they say outboards offer a different set of advantages, including more stowage and quieter cruising. “The outboards will kick up when they hit debris,” David says. “With the inboards, when you bend a prop and shaft, you have to get pulled from the water and you’ll lose days on the water. You can fix an outboard at the dock.
“Even so, there’s still a market out there for inboards,” he adds. “We’re not planning on abandoning them.”
The Master of the Method
Using stitch-and-glue boat construction, some 1,200 of Sam Devlin’s designs have been built all over the world
You can’t talk about Pacific Northwest boatbuilding without talking about Sam Devlin. More than 40 years ago, he established Devlin Designing Boat Builders on the shores of Puget Sound in Olympia, Washington, where he’s built as many as 40 boats per year. But Devlin is not a production builder.
He has nothing against production boatbuilding, but he knows himself well enough that it would bore him to tears. “Imagine painting the ‘Mona Lisa’ over and over,” he says. “It would drive me crazy.”
Devlin uses the stitch-and-glue method. With plywood, wire “stitches” and epoxy, he has built everything from his 7-foot, 6-inch Polliwog tender to a 65-foot power catamaran. He is a widely admired master of the method. His book, Devlin’s Boatbuilding: How to Build Any Boat the Stitch-and-Glue Way, has sold more than 50,000 copies. In May, McGraw-Hill is publishing a larger, updated, hardcover version.
Devlin has designed dinghies, rowboats, sailboats, motoryachts, motorsailers, catamarans, trawlers, runabouts and more. “I really don’t spend much time thinking of the past accomplishments of my career,” he says. “I would rather think about the next designing and building adventure.”
He may not like to define himself by numbers, but more than 1,200 of his designs have been built, 482 of them by his own yard. Currently, there are builds in Brazil and Russia, and his designs have been completed in Korea, Japan, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Iceland and Congo. In all, he’s sold plans to builders in 90 countries.
One of his favorites is the Blue Fin 54, which he drew as a 48-footer, but stretched for a Russian who wanted to build it for himself. “That is the quintessential Northwest go-to-Alaska boat,” Devlin says. He flew to Stockholm, Sweden, to take it for a ride. “It had a nice presence on the water,” Devlin said. “If I had the money, I would build that boat for myself.”
The Blue Fin was powered by a diesel, but Devlin is power agnostic. Besides oars and sails, he’s designed boats with inboards, outboards, pods and solar-electric drives. “We’re flighty on the power thing,” he says.
Even though he is old enough to collect social security and is still recovering from double-knee replacement surgery, Devlin is currently finishing two smaller boats. One is the Goose Lodge 22, an outboard-powered bay runner with a walkthrough windshield that is modeled after his Surf Runner design. The other is a small tugboat design that Devlin plans to use for a new business venture: towing and pushing things around Olympia’s harbor.
The idea was born when he spotted a tug pulling a 45-foot Chris-Craft that was on the verge of sinking. When Devlin learned how much the tug operator had been paid for a day’s work—$6,500—he told his two adult sons that they might all be in the wrong business.
He had a tug hull lying around, so he and his four-man crew decided to finish it. The tug has a 110-hp Yanmar diesel, but Devlin says he might build a second tug using an old 3,200-pound Gardner diesel that would provide more pulling power. “It’s a massive piece of iron that can swing up to a 38-inch screw,” he says.
A 40-foot solar-electric catamaran is next on the build schedule, once again showing his desire to build something different.
“I’m starting to embrace my quirkiness,” he says. “I don’t want to build the same thing all the time. I love dancing around.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue.