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1929 tour boat David B depends on Bellingham port support

Robust network of businesses support repairs, maintenance for dozens of boats

Captain Jeffery Smith, left, and Tom Riley untie the David B from its slip at Squalicum Harbor.
Captain Jeffery Smith, left, and Tom Riley untie the David B from its slip at Squalicum Harbor on March 20, 2023, after months moored up in the quiet waters. Each spring, Jeffery and Christine Smith spend hours prepping the 1929 vessel for a journey to Alaska. Riley was the naval architect who redesigned the ship when it was restored. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Hailey Hoffman Visual Journalist

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.

A ship sailing in Alaska with a large mountain in the background.
The David B sails through Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska in summer 2022. (Photo courtesy of Christine Smith)

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.

A row of boats docked in a shipyard, closed in with a rock barrier.
The David B, second from right, moors in Squalicum Harbor throughout the winter and spring. The boat was built in the Lake Washington Shipyard before it embarked to Alaska to tow sail-powered fishing boats to salmon grounds in Bristol Bay for 25 years. Now, with Jeffery and Christine Smith at the helm, it travels to Alaska each summer on sightseeing and photography tours. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

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.

A look inside the ship for crew members.
Work on the David B begins for crew and friends on March 20. Painter’s tape and supplies cover the wood floors, walls and cabinets of the galley and seating area. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
Jeffery Smith maintaining the boat's engine.
Jeffery Smith sighs with relief as the original engine of the boat roars to life after another winter quiet in the harbor. Smith regularly maintains the engine, updating parts to keep it running as it nears its centennial. The Smiths purchased the boat in 1998 but didn’t fully restore it until 2006. It took the couple years to restore the deck and the deck beams, and modernize the electrical and navigation systems. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
Two onlookers next to a docked ship labeled David B.
A marine travel lift hauls the David B out of the water at Seaview Boatyard in Squalicum Harbor. Workers sink heavy straps beneath the 67-ton vessel before lifting it from the water and wheeling it to land. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
A man power washing the bottom of a ship.
A worker at Seaview Boatyard power-washes a year’s worth of grime from the hull within minutes. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
A ship propped up on metal ssupports and wooden blocks undergoing maintenance.
With the vessel’s hull carefully balanced on wooden blocks with metal supports, Christine and Jeffery Smith begin two weeks of drydock work with support from friends and family on March 21, 2023. The massive hull needed to be sanded, repaired and painted, and the interior dusted and reorganized while the vessel was also restocked with provisions. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
Harold sticking blue painter tape around the boat in preparation for repairs and painting.
Neal Harold sticks blue painter’s tape around the boat to prepare for repairs and painting. Harold is a passenger turned friend to the Smiths — now a common occurrence after nearly two decades of tours. “They are on the boat in a way that makes it feel like they’re in our house,” Jeffery Smith said. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
Three men relax on top of the deck of a boat while docked at the boatyard.
Jeffery Smith, center, sits with his father-in-law Steve Woody, left, and brother-in-law Michael Naselow on the top deck of the David B, drinking cans of Rainier beer on March 22, 2023, marking the end to day three of work on the boat. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
Paint shining on the side of the boat.
A coat of fresh black paint shines on the side of the boat. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
Three people inspecting samples of dark blue fabrics on a table.
Jeffery, left, and Christine Smith, center left, inspect canvas samples constructed by Holly Bennett at her shop, Seaview Canvas, on March 20, 2023. One of the big projects of the year for the Smiths was to replace the old cushions that lined the wooden benches on the boat, previously hand-sewn by Jeffery to save money. The new ones were constructed from sturdy canvas sheets by Bennett in the harbor. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
Four people discussing over documents at the front desk.
Christine and Jeffery Smith speak with Pete Foti, owner of West Coast Marine Service, about purchasing two new outboard motors for their dinghy on March 29, 2023. The dinghy provides rides from the David B to shore for passengers touring the Alaska coast. Christine, the resident naturalist, leads hikes and trips to explore beaches and rainforests and see grizzly bears and waterfalls. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
Six people discussing in the insides of a boat.
Jeffery Smith speaks with friends and visitors in the now-tidied dining area during an open house on April 15, 2023. After several weeks of work, the vessel was returned to its slip and supplies organized just days before the couple and crew set sail for a summer in Alaska. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

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