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Inside Passage on a Grand Banks 42

The builder known for its coastal trawlers marks a milestone with an organized cruise to Alaska

The builder known for its coastal trawlers marks a milestone with an organized cruise to Alaska

Editor’s note: In mid-May, 16 Grand Banks yachts set off from Bedwell Harbor, British Columbia, on the Grand Tour 2006: Inside Passage, an 850-mile three-week cruise-in-company to Wrangell, Alaska, in celebration of the builder’s 50th anniversary. Contributing writer John Love stepped aboard for a leg of the cruise.

I joined the Grand Tour in Shearwater, British Columbia, for three days of cruising north to Prince Rupert. The tour celebrates the golden anniversary of Grand Banks, and befittingly the yachts in attendance ranged from a 1973 “woodie” GB48 motoryacht and a GB36 sedan to a spanking new GB44 and Aleutian 70.

I admire these boats. (In fact, I own a GB42, though I left her in Connecticut and hitched a ride on one of the other Grand Banks yachts on the cruise.) There aren’t many builders that can boast that their wooden hulls are still around and seaworthy enough to cruise up the Inside Passage to the Land of the Midnight Sun. Indeed, GB42 hull No. 1, built in 1965 and now named Magdalena, is alive and well as a dive charter boat home-ported in Arkösund, Sweden.

In 1973 wood gave way to fiberglass starting with GB42 hull No. 353, and regrettably the last of this breed was launched in 2005 as hull 1560. The GB42 has been replaced by the Sparkman & Stevens-designed GB44 sporting a planing hull, but still obviously the offspring of the venerable 42.

This gearhead scribbler doesn’t have the words to properly describe the grandeur of the Great Bear Rainforest and the fjords where the flotilla anchored. Clear waters, sheer cliffs, snowcapped mountains, waterfalls swollen with melt water roaring down the slopes, the Big Dipper bright in the night sky, bears foraging along the shore. This is a place where anything other than the stately pace of displacement speed would, to my way of thinking, be a sacrilege.

The Heritage Class of Grand Banks coastal trawlers are made for cruises like the Grand Tour. The pilothouse saloon — it’s plenty roomy even on the GB36 — offers the navigator and helmsman an unobstructed view to both pilot the boat and to take in the scenery out of the wet and boisterous weather. And even a boat outfitted by a minimalist, with just the basics like a propane stove and an icebox, in my opinion would have to be crewed by real twits to be found wanting.

All Grand Banks boats have the basics, a comfortable bunk, a hot shower, and a place to enjoy nature without disturbing it or getting drenched with cold spray during the watch. However, even the Heritage Class yachts — the ones that appeal to former sailors in particular, with their plum bows and battleship strong and seaworthy hulls — haven’t escaped being bloated with gadgets. The stock boat comes reasonably powered and equipped, but by the time some owners get done with the fitting out they could be hauled ashore to double as miniature mansions. The owner can run the electric stove and oven, coffee maker, microwave, hair dryer, entertainment system — you name it — all at once on the supersized inverter and stupendous (for a boat) battery banks. And they get really cranky when any of it doesn’t work.

To satisfy the demand that each gizmo work perfectly, Grand Banks brought along service support manager Larry Crouch, a worthy representative of the great (red) State of Texas, who was truly talented at skippering boats and fixing everything while maintaining a diplomatic composure. I had the pleasure of cruising on the GB42 motoryacht Sea Gate with Crouch and his sidekick Jonathan Cooper, editor of the Grand Banks magazine Spray and a talented photographer.

Cooper, being from the great (blue) State of Washington — and worse, that hotbed of provocative ideas, Seattle — naturally was suspected of liking chardonnay and latte and harboring political views that would be deemed scandalous and even seditious in Texas. We drank beer, told tall tales, played poker, washed the dishes when the sink was overflowing, and had a great time being a floating fraternity house. The brass from Grand Banks realized too late that embedding a Soundings scrivener with this crowd wasn’t going to burnish the corporate yuppie image, but then again I immediately throw out any boating magazine with ads for designer watches. It was a pleasure hanging out with the worker bees who did their level best to act like they were pleased to have this old salt aboard.

After a passage from Shearwater of about 80 nautical miles, we anchored Sea Gate at a waterfall hundreds of feet high and cascading into the Khutze Inlet off the western side of Graham Reach. The shore drops off precipitously, so we anchored in more than 60 feet with a 19-foot tide. When the forward anchor was set, Crouch put out a stern anchor to keep Sea Gate from swinging onto the rock ledge at the foot of the falls. At 5 a.m. we were awakened to rescue a yacht that had broken its shore line and was stranded on said rock ledge.

The tide was ebbing, and the stranded boat — a single-engine model with a skeg protecting the running gear — was dangerously listing to starboard. It was clear that a fuel spill was imminent from the starboard tank vent. Crouch sprang into action, first evaluating the situation from Sea Gate’s dinghy and then weighing Sea Gate’s anchors in a flash while I fashioned a bridle on the aft deck.

Crouch expertly maneuvered Sea Gate into harm’s way just off the rock ledge, and the bridle was passed to the stricken vessel. When the slack was in, he slowly increased power to Sea Gate’s big props. Miraculously the yacht slid off the ledge, righted herself and was no worse off for the grounding. If she had been a twin-screw I’m certain her running gear would have been damaged. (When I departed at Prince Rupert, that Grand Banks was proceeding to Alaska with nary a scratch, a mute testament to her solid construction.)

The next day we cruised to Klewnuggit Inlet midway through Grenville Channel, and I listened in vain on the VHF for any recognition of Crouch’s fine seamanship in the best traditions of yachting. Unfortunately, it wasn’t forthcoming, so I take this opportunity to say well done Larry.

The Klewnuggit anchorage was on the north end of the East Inlet in 9 fathoms and surrounded by forested slopes and majestic peaks. These inlets are so inaccessible that the only boats in the anchorages were those in our flotilla. In fact, it was rare to encounter another boat between anchorages.

Grand Banks yachts are production yachts. My GB42, Maramor, is hull No. 1504 and one of the last built after a production run of 40 years. As production proceeds, a yacht in a series becomes more refined, and building costs markedly decrease as design and tooling costs are amortized over many vessels. The Aleutian Class (59, 64 and 70) are the newest production yachts offered by Grand Banks, and if you’ve come to the realization that you can’t take “it” with you, and you’ve got plenty of “it,” this yacht should be high on your list.

Grand Banks is outfitting its line principally with electronically governed Caterpillar engines, although interestingly it was Cummins MerCruiser, with its impressive new line of common rail engines, that was the engine sponsor of the Grand Tour.

The Aleutian 70 on the tour could cruise economically as a displacement yacht, notwithstanding its planing hull and power to plane. What makes this possible is the electronic control of its twin 1,001-bhp Cat C18 engines, which permits continuous low load operation for a displacement speed of about 11 knots (LWL 64 feet, 4 inches, for those who want to calculate displacement speed). This ability, combined with her beautiful lines — a pleasing blend of the traditional and the modern, superb joinerwork and the highest standard of outfitting — will make the Aleutian the choice of both the knowledgeable and the connoisseur.

Indulge a small digression on one of my pet topics. Electronically governed engines — especially those with common rail (Cummins MerCruiser, Volvo Penta, John Deere, Lugger, MTU) or HEUI (Caterpillar) fuel injection — are revolutionizing the powering of yachts. In addition to the fact that they don’t smoke or smell, they allow high-powered diesel engines to run cleanly and efficiently at low power (20 percent of full-rated power and up) so that a 2,000-bhp planing hull Aleutian 70 also can be a long-range passagemaker.

But be careful: There are limits to this flexibility and already I see yachts outfitted with electronically governed engines that are so powerful that even at 20 percent load they exceed displacement speed and, therefore, don’t benefit from this flexibility.

You can outfit an Aleutian 70 with more than 3,000 bhp, and you can also ruin a great yacht with bad choices usually made on the assumption that more is better. For any cruising yacht you have to analyze together the speed/power curve and the operating parameters of the engine choices. Most importantly, you have to turn a deaf ear to the oft-given advice that without maximum power you will not be able to resell.

A good portion of the cruisers on the Grand Tour were no spring chickens, and there was no shortage of pictures of grandchildren, including my own. However, organized cruises like this one offer a great opportunity for all ages and skill levels to enjoy real adventure and the exceptional camaraderie that’s part of such an undertaking, with advice and help if required.