PUBLISHED: 10:21 AM on Wednesday, February 22, 2006
Southeast boat shoppers favor larger aluminum hulls in 2006
by lee leschper

Photo by Lee Leschper
  A boat, regardless of size, shape or composition, is the ticket to great outdoor adventures in Southeast Alaska, as these two anglers are doing, landing a nice spring king salmon off Douglas Island in May last year.
Although conventional wisdom would have us think that boat shopping kicks into gear with the first warm pre-spring days, there really is no boat buying season anymore. Anytime is a smart time to find your next dream boat, especially if you want to add your own custom features and equipment.

So what's hot for 2006?

Willie Harris of Willie's Marine in Juneau says savvy boat buyers are shifting from fiberglass to aluminum hulls.

"People are moving into the larger aluminum boats, in the 26-34 foot range," Harris said. "We have these boats custom built. In that range they are harder and harder to get, because demand is higher and these boats take longer to build.

"Guys come in at the end of last season, hoping to have a boat built by this spring, but they just take a lot longer to build. Just the assembly process of bigger boats takes longer."

Harris says the once-Spartan aluminum hulls are become more regal.

Photo by Lee Leschper
  Aluminum hulls like this Wooldrige are becoming increasingly popular and are just the ticket to reach great destinations like Berner's Bay, where this fly fishing couple are about to intercept a run of pink salmon.
"The creature comforts on these larger boats are nicer. They're painted, not just plain aluminum. They're fairly pretty boats."

Once the work horse of commercial fishermen, these rugged boats are now popular with serious weekend boaters too, Harris said.

"The commercial guys have been using them for their business, and now the pleasure boaters are crossing over. They are more durable. They require less maintenance, less buffing and polishing than glass hulls."

Casey Flint, whose family has operated Rocky's Marine in Petersburg for more than 25 years, agrees that bigger aluminum hulls are getting the lions share of attention from boat buyers.

"The trend we are seeing is more big boats, more welded aluminum and hard tops in the 22- to 26-foot range.

"You get a lot of boat for your money these days, real strong value buying, in the $40- to 50,000 range.

"We get a lot of calls on that type of boat. It's probably a bigger push for fish. There are more guys getting into the charter business. They're not limited in what they're doing, and they're looking for bigger, more comfortable boats for their clients.

Photo by Lee Leschper
  Because of the uncertain and often hazardous nature of weather and big water throughout Southeast Alaska, standard equipment for anglers wanting to fish or cruise year-around is a more substantial rig that includes roomy accommodations out of the weather and enough length and beam to weather most seas. These anglers are trolling off Admiralty Island.
"The recreational users are also finding that as they spend more time out on their boat, they want to be more comfortable.

Although they're not inexpensive, modern aluminum hulls are not holding value, but actually appreciating in come cases, Harris said.

Southeast anglers for the most part are less interesting in trailering than sea worthiness, because there's less room to trailer a boat.

Aluminum's lighter weight translates into real world utility, Harris added.

"They're lighter, quite a bit lighter than fiberglass, so even a 26-footer is very trailerable. It definitely helps with fuel economy too-you need less horsepower and get better speed."

Although both inboard and outboard engines are suitable to aluminum hulls, outboards are definitely gaining favor.

"The trend now is going from one to two or even three outboards.

"Because of the 4-stroke technology, 2-cycle (outboards) are definitely losing ground."

"There's been a big upswing in 4-stroke outboards, because they are 40 percent more efficient and offer a lot more range on a tank of fuel," Flint said.

Speaking of fuel efficiency, that's a lot more important than raw power to most Southeast anglers, he said.

"An adequate, economical engine is what they are looking for, not max horsepower."

Flint, who sells Yamaha outboards, is adamant that reliability is the number one accessory.

"Commercial fishermen can't take a day off at $4,000 a day. If their motor breaks down, they're out of business. And since they rely on repeat business, any loss is going to hurt future business too."

Modern aluminum hulls also provide more flexibility for customizing features and layout, Harris said.

"Custom building gives you the ability to build your boat the way you want," Harris said. "More or less deck space, more or less cabin space, the head on this side or that, adding a crab pot puller, all the options you can glue on where you want them. You can do a lot more with aluminum, that you can't do with glass."

With more demand comes the inevitable increase in value (that means price) so that what once were economy hulls are now priced comparably to most glass hulls.

"The price range used to be that the aluminum was cheaper," Harris said. "Now they are pretty comparable-but the resale value holds well."

Beyond the basic hull, which might start at more than $50,000, it's the refinements and accessories that add value, and cost. Electronics, in particular, are a big part of the upgrades that are now more "standard equipment.

"A lot of guys that get out in winter time tend to have more electronics," Harris said.

"With weather conditions, foggy days, and night time traveling because of the short days. Radar is becoming fairly common. It's a nice feature that gives you the ability to navigate home. It's like a big video game.

"The nice thing about some of these is dual functions, like GPS and depth finder."

But outdoorsmen with more limited budgets or simpler tastes need not feel left out, because smaller basic skiffs are still a great platform for exploring Southeast waters, Harris added.

Entry level boats, even nicely equipped, can fit into family budgets, he said.

"We've got a nice 16 - foot North River than you can get into a complete package for under $10,000."

"The opposite trend, is we're selling a lot more jet boats, to people who want to get away from the crowds and get further up rivers, to hunt and fish," Flint said.

These include not just moose hunters, but steelhead anglers that want to chase these superb game fish far upstream and away from fishing crowds.

Of course, for some families, there's no such thing as too much of a good thing.

"This is Alaska," Harris laughed. "It's not uncommon for the average guy to have at least two boats. The weekend warrior who takes the whole family and wants more room to stay on the boat, with a larger boat. Then when it's a nice day and you get off early from work, and the kings are running, with a skiff you can be running on the water in about 15 minutes, in a boat that's easy for one man to handle.

"And when the big one is all winterized and put away, you can take off today, anytime by just pulling the skiff out of the garage."

Leschper is an award-winning outdoor writer, and general manager of the Capital City Weekly. Email him at