Editor’s note:Working Waterfront is an occasional series that captures the past, present and future of Whatcom County’s waterfront, and highlights the people behind the industry. Today’s story highlights the Alaskan tour boat, David B and its economic ties to Bellingham.
Every year, as March rolls around, Christine and Jeffery Smith rouse themselves from a winter of rest because there is work to be done. The David B, their wooden passenger vessel built in 1929, groans in its slip nestled in Squalicum Harbor.
The Smiths — longtime Bellingham residents — have spent 18 summers showing small groups of tourists, naturalists and photographers the wonders of the Alaskan coastline on board their historic tour boat. They sail past towering blue glaciers, watch humpback whales breach and grizzly bears feast on salmon in streams, and tour secluded areas of coastline on foot.
During the trips, the couple serves as mariners, mechanics, naturalists, cooks, tour guides, therapists and everything else to keep the boat afloat and passengers happy. Bonds formed in the process often last beyond the four- or eight-day journey.
“A lot of people come for the experience, but a big part of it is that they want to tell you about their experiences,” Jeffery said. “We spend a lot of time chatting and listening. I think that’s one of the coolest parts of this.”
The David B is just one of several passenger vessels and charter boats that opt to harbor in Bellingham during the cold winter months. Larger adventure-tourism organizations also harbor vessels here: Northwest Explorations sends flotillas of boats for more experienced mariners to Alaska, and San Juan Cruises provides day trips and whale-watching cruises locally.
Often unnoticed is the network of local businesses that exist to serve these passenger boats and other vessels homeporting in Bellingham. Maintenance is job one.
“The overall maintenance of the boat, it’s constant,” Christine said. “You have to prioritize [what] absolutely needs to be done … And then, you hope that the year was good enough that we’ve got the money to do it.”
Weeks are spent repairing dings, scratches and breaks from the previous summer at sea, and even more time spent working on projects to maintain the vessels to run for years into the future. The owners work on projects from painting the hull to refreshing small passenger cabins.
It can cost thousands of dollars annually, but with the plethora of marine parts shops and other services in Squalicum Harbor, that money rarely travels far. The Smiths said they worked with about two dozen local companies in 2023.
Materials, marine supplies and paints came from businesses such as LFS Marine & Outdoor, Windsor Plywood and Carlson Steel Works. Workday meals were served by the Web Locker, and logs from Home Fire Prest Logs to heat the stove were transported via a truck from Fountain Rentals. The freezer was stocked with salmon from Sea to Shore Seafood Company and a galley cabinet was filled with bags of custom coffee — all cylinders provided by Hammerhead Coffee Roasters.
Simply put, the wealth from the trips to Alaska’s ice caps finds its way into the pockets of Bellingham business owners.