PUBLISHED: 10:32 AM on Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Allen Marine's story of business success built on family tradition

Courtesy photo
  Allen Marine is one of the oldest touring companies in Alaska, and is the only one that both conducts tours and manufactures its own boats. Above, one of the original Allen vessels crosses Silver Bay near Sitka, where the company began in the tour industry and continues today.
Allen and Marine.

For more than a generation, the name Allen and the marine industry in Southeast Alaska have been one and the same.

Most anglers are pretty familiar with the Allen retail boat dealerships in Sitka and Juneau.

But there's far more to the family business, and the story.

It really began more than 40 years ago. After World War II, Bob Allen was working on Kodiak Island.

When the 1964 earthquake decimated much of southwest Alaska, Bob began recovering scrap materials, especially massive quantities of underwater cable that had salvage value.

You might say the family business rose phoenix-like from the ashes of Alaska's worst natural disaster.

From that grubstake earned from earthquake salvage, Bob bought the land in Sitka where the family business is based today, and launched a new venture.

Photo by Lee Leschper
  Workers in the Allen Marine Sitka facility clean one of the company's trademark catamarans, in preparation for another summer season.
His first business, founded 1967, was operating a shipyard in Sitka, repairing vessels.

His first boat was a1936 Stevens Craft, recovered after it had sunk. He brought that boat into his yard, repaired it and began 1970 working with the cruise lines.

He began in 1970 lightering-transporting passengers in the fledgling tourism business, from large ships to shore in Sitka. As the number of tourists visiting Sitka grew, the family business expanded to tours of nearby Silver Bay, in those days literally overflowing with humpback whales and sea lions each summer.

Bob's second and third boats were surplus war-time wooden craft.

Bob Allen bought two 42-foot wooden military surplus boats to conduct the first tours. While not exactly luxury liners, these boats built to move troops from battle ships to shore and were excellent people movers. But they were not ideal touring ships.

Doing tours since 1970, Allen Marine Tours is the second oldest touring company in Alaska.

While the family business concentrated on tourist passengers, a secondary business began to grow with the expanding mining industry, as Allen Marine Inc. began transporting workers to the mines extracting gold and other minerals from Southeast Alaska.

In 1984 the company needed a new touring boat, but could not find any ship builder designing a boat to meet Bob's demanding specifications, so he decided to build one.

That first boat built in what would become one of the largest boat yards in Alaska, the 77-foot St. Maria, was a steel hull built in 1984-85

In 1986 Allen Marine Inc. built their first catamaran, the design that has now become the company trademark.

They also switched from steel to aluminum hulls. That 78-foot cat set the mold for the future of the touring business in Southeast Alaska.

It also set some new limits for catamaran design. For example it was the first cat ever built with four jet engines. Bob Allen was convinced it was a concept that would work, but conventional wisdom, and the jet engine manufacturers, said it couldn't be done.

He did it anyway.

And it worked, giving the big cat more power and maneuverability.

Allen named that catamaran Alaska Dream, or actually a young Alaska girl named in a contest from the Allens.

The fast catamaran ferried worked from Auke Bay to Greens Creek Mine and back for 10 years.

By 1991 Allen Marine Tours had begun doing wildlife tours in a big way and began building a series of touring catamarans.

Today the tour division operates 21 of them in SE Alaska. The volume of touring guest has also grown dramatically. This summer Allen Marine Inc. will transport about a quarter million from Sitka, Juneau and Ketchikan.

Most of the tour passengers come from cruise ships and Allen Marine Inc. has continued to refine their tour boats, to provide the most enjoyable experience possible for visitors often on their once-in-a-lifetime visit to Alaska.

Today Allen Marine Inc. and its companies are one of the largest employers in Sitka. Throughout a year, Allen Marine Inc. will employ close to 60 people year-around and add another 120 seasonal workers.

There are very few builder operators in the world, which gives them a unique ability to literally build boats to the exact specifications that suit the touring industry.

The catamarans Allen Marine Inc. builds for the tour industry are designed to give passengers the most of their once-in-a-lifetime ride. Windows are tall enough to see to the top of ship-side glaciers, while the wide cats are fast and stable, and are able to carry up to 150 passengers.

Those big jet engines are controlled from a massive control panel with remote steering that allows the captain to hug a shoreline, ease the boats sideways right up against a glacier or dock, even turn on a dime, so passengers can see it all.

They also allow the captain to adjust thrust and hold the rig hovering almost motionless.

It'd be easy to assume that Allen Marine Inc. boats are strictly Alaska models. But in 2003 the company built 19 passenger ferries for New York. Thirteen of them were 78-foot cats and the other six were 65 foot mono hulls.

The boat building side of the family business has extended to smaller consumer and charter operator rigs. The current hot tickets are two beefy catamarans-a 33-footer and a new prototype 28-footer that will run fast and smooth with a pair of twin 250 outboards that will power the rig to 39 knots and cruise at 27.

These are proprietary designs of Allen Marine Inc.'s, designed by Juneau's Coastwise Design, including a roomy cabin and a drop-ramp bow, making it ideal for dropping off ATVs on distant beaches and river banks.

These are custom boats, giving the buyer the chance to add and refine details pretty quickly. It's also another reflection of Allen Marine Inc.'s commitment to customer service, reflected in the company being voted Alaska Small Business of the Year. Allen Marine Inc. is the No. 1 one boat builder in Alaska.

There are other benefits to being both a tour operator and a manufacturer.

The Allen Marine Inc. staff combines their tour and building facilities each winter, bringing in and rehabbing every tour boat, so that the boats are factory fresh each summer for another year of guests. That cleaning includes a slick clean bottom hull that runs smoother and saves many gallons of fuel during a summer season.

Many skippers are now choosing to overpower their rigs, adding larger-than-required outboards, because it increases fuel efficiency by allowing running at three-quarter throttle.

On the retail side, Allen Marine Inc.'s stores in Sitka and Ketchikan sell many boats each year, including Hewes Craft and Crestliner aluminum boats, in addition to Allen Marine Inc.'s own designs. The retail stores also carry Suzuki Marine, Tohatsu, Yamaha, Honda Marine and Evinrude outboard motors.

Besides the custom catamarans, Allen Marine Inc. builds two unique Alaska designs, the 30-foot Orca and the 23-foot Sitka, both rugged aluminum mono hulls ideally suited to the changing conditions of SE Alaska. Most are custom built to customer specifications.

The stores also carry just about everything else a Southeast boater or angler could want, from marine electronics and fishing tackle to safety gear and crab pots.

The no-longer-little family business in Sitka has come a long way from Bob Allen's original modest beginnings.

And don't expect the business or Allen family to slow down anytime soon.

Learn more about Allen Marine at