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Kenai commercial fisherman retrofits boat for tourism

Owner believes he is among the first of many who will make the switchover in the region

Posted: Sunday, June 10, 2001

KENAI - The Darby will never again haul salmon-laden gillnets out of the icy waters of Cook Inlet.

Owner Charlie See of Kenai spent last winter converting his 38-foot fiberglass gillnetter into a "pocket yacht" to ply the coves and fjords south of Seward, laden with ecotourists, kayakers, birders, photographers and the occasional sport fisherman.

The Darby, built in 1987, has seen good times and bad in the commercial fishing business. But the downs of late have been so bad, and the future seemingly so bleak, See decided to steer the Darby toward new waters.

When I started 22, 23 years ago, we were hunters. Now we line up on the line cafeteria style and wind up corking someone or getting corked ourselves. Its not pleasurable any more. I want another adventure while Im still young enough.

- Charlie See, boat owner

"When I started 22, 23 years ago, we were hunters. Now we line up on the line cafeteria style and wind up corking someone or getting corked ourselves," he said. "It's not pleasurable any more. I want another adventure while I'm still young enough."

The 57-year-old See will skipper the Darby while his wife, Patty, will handle the ground logistics in Seward. Both are retired teachers.

Converting the Darby to a cruiser is costing about $80,000, including covering the voluminous fish holds the boat was designed around. Extending the cabin to within a few feet of the stern cemented the Darby's future as a tour boat.

Extending the fiberglass cabin was an all-winter project. Fellow commercial fisherman Denny Crandall, also of Kenai, said he understands why See is making the change.

"It's kind of the way things go nowadays. It's hard to make a living fishing now," he said.

See figures he's on the leading edge of a wave of overnight charters and of commercial fishermen turning to other seafaring adventures.

Exploring the coves between Seward and Homer on bird patrol during the Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup in 1989 planted the seed of this kind of cruising in See's mind. What put his idea into high gear was looking for an affordable adventure for his extended family a few years ago.

The Darby, named after See's mother, will hit the water with plenty of recreational options for up to six passengers. There is one double berth and four singles in the oak-trimmed salon, two bathrooms, both with showers, and a fish hold.

Two double and three single kayaks will be carried on the top deck, along with a 16-foot inflatable motor launch. The Darby will have halibut and salmon fishing gear, as well as an octopus pot. It carries a crew of three.

To reduce noise, See converted the exhaust to a "wet" system that goes out at the waterline and installed lots of extensive sound-deadening foam.

"The big thing people object to is the noise," he said.

The Sees have advertised their three-day, three-night cruises in several Alaska and nationwide publications, but are still learning the ins and outs of promotion. Bookings from several states have come via the Internet from their Web site, www.alaskafjordcharters.com.

At $750-$820 per person, See figures he needs to fill half of the berths to meet operating expenses. He doesn't expect to turn a profit in the first year, but he thinks he's offering more than other area day cruisers and fishing charters.

"We've squeezed a lot into 38 feet," he said.



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