Story last updated at 11/20/2013 - 5:14 pm
More than a million people travel to Alaska each summer to enjoy our scenic beauty, wildlife and cultural attractions, but only a special few will ever tour the inside passage by private yacht. That opportunity may not be as far out of reach as you think, and, regardless, it's always fun to see how the other half lives. I recently had an opportunity to tour the Ketchikan based "Sumdum" and get to know her story after years of admiring her in the water.
Named after an abandoned Tlingit village in the waterways of Endicott Arm that led John Muir to Glacier Bay, the Sumdum is a 79-foot yacht built in 1987 by Tom Nelson in Washington State, powered by twin 460 HP CAT engines that allow a cruising speed of 11 knots.
The custom designed vessel comfortably accommodates eight guests in four staterooms with two full bathrooms for their exclusive use. Several of the berths can be outfitted for two twin beds or one king and they are attractive, cozy spaces with good lighting, artwork and ingenious storage.
The baths are remarkably spacious with tall ceilings and ample room for toiletries, and have a selection of plush towels and hooks for hanging pajamas or the custom-made on-board robes. One even has a full-size bathtub, something you rarely see on a boat.
Other onboard comforts include a relaxing open salon, a selection of books, a TV/DVD player and the use of high-powered marine binoculars. Four double kayaks and a skiff are available for runs up secluded rivers, fjords or just for fun. A spacious hot tub on deck conveniently allows you to drop a pole in the water while you soak.
Eight lucky passengers at a time get to have the experience of a lifetime on the luxury yacht for about the same price as a berth on a small, luxury cruise line or a week at a very high end fishing resort, provided you rent out the entire boat and split the cost among your family and friends. What you get for your money is priceless: a comfortable boat, an extremely knowledgeable crew, close proximity to wildlife, hands on experiences and all the fresh seafood you can eat.
Meals are one of the highlights of a week on the Sumdum. Guests are given a questionnaire about their dietary preferences before boarding and every effort is made to ensure their satisfaction with the three meals and ample snacks served each day. Menus vary, but they are all cooked from scratch and feature as much seafood as possible, much of which the guests themselves help catch, haul or clean as desired for the full Alaskan experience.
Unlike a cruise, there's no bar bill at the end of the trip as all beverages are included. Specialties of hostess and chef Ann Widness, herself an accomplished mariner with a captain's license, include fresh scones, homemade granola, chocolate truffles, crab cakes and a variety of Asian inspired rice salads with a medley of flavors and textures.
Captain Bob Widness has been at the helm of the Sumdum since it was launched in 1987 and is now the owner-operator with his wife Ann. Bob grew up on the water and has held a U.S.C.G. Masters license for over 30 years.
Not just a master yachtsman, Captain Bob is also a degreed biologist who can enthusiastically discuss native biology, geology, and natural history with his guests and delights in taking out scientists on research expeditions in the winter months, more for the learning opportunities and conversation than for the money. In addition, he has a genuine love of fishing and is an experienced scuba diver, which comes in handy when looking for underwater delicacies such as sea cucumber, geoduck and sea urchin.
Daily excursions depend upon the desires of the guests but can include fishing, hiking, kayaking and whale watching. The small boat and flexible crew allow guests to follow the wildlife if so desired, experience glaciers firsthand or set anchor for the evening in a secluded cove well out of the way of other marine traffic or cruise ships.
A cup of tea and a boat tour later, I envied the passengers who got to travel on the Sumdum. The luxury was appealing, but what was really attractive was getting to know two people who combine their wealth of knowledge and passion for the water to provide a first rate experience of the real Alaska for visitors. Lucky passengers, indeed.