Elegant charter yacht overcame its humble origins as Army freighter

Mar 3, 2008 12:00 AM

The 114-foot yacht was built for the U.S. Army in 1943 to a design by H.C. Hanson, one of the West Coast's foremost naval architects. (photos by Alan Haig-Brown)

"Make no mistake about it, running a charter boat is a business," stressed Capt. Colin Griffinson when asked if a boat could be both a live-aboard and a charter operation. "You can't run $55,000-per-week charters as a part-time, three-week-per-year thing."

Griffinson has been seriously chartering his boat for the past three summer seasons, although he has owned this and other boats for much longer. Growing up near Dublin, Ireland, in a family of master painters of estate house interiors, he lived in a house next to a busy fishing port.

From time to time, he would make a one-week trip as a deck hand on the trawlers, and in the process, he learned the feel of a good deck under his feet.

A look around the 114-foot MV Pacific Yellowfin affirms his point that this is a serious charter boat. Launched as a small cargo vessel for the U.S. Army in 1943 at Billings Shipyard, Deer Isle Maine, she was number 64 in a series built, like the famous Miki tugs, on both coasts. And like the Mikis, she was built to a West Coast design. H.C. Hanson, born in 1892, was one of his era's premier West Coast naval architects, tuning out over 2,500 designs from his office in the Pacific Northwest. The vast majority of these were fishing boats, tugs and other workboats. The class to which Pacific Yellowfin belongs is classic West Coast, from the visor over the expanse of wheelhouse windows to the double-ender stern designed to cope with a big following Pacific swell. Massively timbered, she sits low in the water in a design that is equally sea kindly when running light or loaded.

This is a vessel that any wooden boat nut would fall in love with at first sight. But it takes a wooden boat nut with Griffinson's determination to realize the dream of ownership and then of putting this boat back to work. Only the super rich could afford a small ship such as this as a plaything, and that sort of person is usually more interested in something that would fit in with the other stern-moored boats in Monaco.

Within a few years of arriving in Canada in the 1980s, Griffinson bought a classic 1926 70-foot wooden purse seine fishing boat. He had served an extended old-world apprenticeship in the detailed work required to maintain castles and estate houses. But he still had a lot to learn about maintaining a wooden boat in Canada.

"When I first came into the Fraser River with the boat, I got cheated by some bad trades people. Some were good at their trade but had drinking problems. Others talked a good line but did shoddy work. But I learned who the craftsmen were," he recalled.

The yacht's double-ender stern helps the boat handle big following swells.

He also had his first lessons in handling a heavy wooden boat. "I remember Tom from Tom-Mac shipyard taking me out to show me how to handle the boat. He showed me how to use lots of throttle to get the three-blade prop to push enough water over the rudder to maintain steerage. You can't be timid. You have to give it enough throttle to get it moving, or when you put gear in reverse, to stop the boat."

This bit of advice is particularly relevant when it come to handling a vessel like Pacific Yellowfin. It is built on massive sawn Douglas fir frames from the keel out to the bilge and then yellow cedar up the sides and through the decks to the bulwarks. To the outside of these frames are fastened 3.5-inch edge-grain fir planking with liners fastened inside that are well over 2 inches.

If hoisted, the boat would weigh 400 tons. This is a lot of weight to get moving and a lot of weight to stop. It takes a decisive person at the helm. Add to this that the engines are direct reversing and, without a calm and knowledgeable hand on the throttles, you could have a recipe for disaster, especially when landing at smaller finger floats in out-of-the-way ports.

Designer Hanson decided that his small freight/passenger boats needed 600 hp to move them through the water at its 12-knot hull speed. Some of them were built with single 600-hp engines, but others, including Pacific Yellowfin, got twin 300-hp engines. These heavily built slow-speed engines can still click over at their original 300-rpm specification.

For classic engine buffs, their direct reversing design puts them in a special class. To reverse the engine and so the boat, they do not employ a reverse gear; instead, the whole engine is stopped and then restarted in such a way that it turns the shaft in the reverse direction. Originally this was handled by an engineer in response to bell signals that came down from the classic telegraph in the wheelhouse. More recently, controls have been added that allow this stop-start routine to be done from the wheelhouse, but the original telegraph and a brass speaking tube connecting the bridge and the engine room have been retained.

Owner and master Colin Griffinson at the helm. The vessel reatains the telegraph and brass speaking tube for communicating with the engine room, but the boat has been refitted with controls that allow the engine to be operated directly from the wheelhouse.

Today Chief Engineer Jack Dixon lovingly cares for the big green Atlas diesels with their exposed push rods. Dixon is retired after a lifetime of tending engines on board the oceangoing tugs in the British Columbia fleet. He counts among his accomplishments a 2002 voyage from Vancouver to China and back again to pick up and deliver a new barge.

This is a man with salt water in his veins and the steady beat of a diesel in his heart. He and Griffinson have researched the history of their engines, while ferreting out every available source of parts. They are currently on the lookout for a spare engine.

These engines drove Yellowfin through a good swath of the world's oceans before they came under Dixon's care. While her military history as the U.S. Army (Freight Passenger) F.P. 64 is sketchy, it is believed that she saw duty in the closing days of the war in the South Pacific before being sent north along Alaska's rugged Aleutian Islands for demobilization after the war. Certainly a good number of her sisters saw duty along this chain of islands that have been called "the place where the ocean breaks its back." A 1943 issue of Pacific Motorboat magazine declares with pride, "The tremendously useful part that these versatile wooden vessels have already played in the Aleutian campaigns can be traced back to one significant thing — they are a truly West Coast design."

This is the vessel that Griffinson and his wife Marelon fell in love with and, with some skillful trading and careful budgeting, came to own in 2000. Over the next four years, the Griffinsons led an idyllic life in port near Vancouver while their daughters went to school and Colin ran his master painting business during the week, and then away to the coastal islands and bays at every opportunity. His work requires the highest standards of craftsmanship as he and his company paint some of the finest houses in Vancouver and in cities as far away as Hong Kong.

He brought these same standards to the refurbishing of Pacific Yellowfin. His time with his first boat had taught him who were the best marine trades people. He brought interior decorators from his upscale painting work to help with the interior layout of the vessel and he took personal charge of the painting and bright finishing throughout the ship. But in time this Gypsy-life became unmanageable and the family decided to move ashore and to put the boat back to work.

In order to charter, the boat had to be brought up to Canadian Steamship Inspection (CSI) standards. Because it had been built as a military craft rather than a yacht, they started with some significant advantages. The boat has five watertight bulkheads that exceed the CSI requirements.

"CSI is all about safety," explained Griffinson, "and I have no problem with that. We have three times the required number of fire extinguishers on board. Everything that CSI asked for made sense to me. We hired all certified people to do the wiring and we did our CSI haul out at Allied Shipbuilders in North Vancouver, where they understand commercial and CSI expectations."

As the boat came up to passenger-vessel standards, Griffinson also worked to meet all the other requirements. Over a two-year period, including one six-month stretch, he completed the certificate requirements for chief mate, 3,000 ton, near coastal. Given his extensive experience and boat-handling skills, he has been granted a licensing dispensation that allows him to serve as Pacific Yellowfin's master.

Chief Engineer Jack Dixon tends the twin 300-hp Atlas diesels with their exposed push rods.

He has also sent his chef and stewards to school to complete their certified deck hand training. When Pacific Yellowfin sailed with customers in the summer of 2007, she had certified deck hands, engineer, captain and mate. "Being an owner-operator is central to this business," Griffinson maintains.

As much as charter work requires a seaworthy vessel and fully certified crew, it also requires sensitivity to the clientele. "When people pay the price to come on this boat, they have a right to expect full five-star service. Everything from the bridge to the dinner plates has to be of the best quality," he added.

One large family party in the summer of 2007 has already made plans to return, partially because of the sensitivity of the captain. Griffinson explained that one of the older family members had a spill when water skiing but maintained that there was no problem and that the cruise along an isolated part of the coast should not be interrupted. Gently ignoring the elderly gentleman's directions, Griffinson put into a port with road access and had the boat met by an ambulance. It turned out to be the right call, as it was discovered that the man had broken his hip in two places. At his insistence, the rest of the family stayed aboard to complete the week's cruise.

The wheelhouse has been updated with the latest in dual radar, AIS, GPS and a Navi-Sailor electronic chart system from Transas Marine. At the same time a well-stocked chart table is retained and courses are plotted on the paper charts with the participation of the charter guests. While plotting courses on the charts is entertaining for his guests, there are numerous water toys on board to create enough speed and derring-do to make up for Pacific Yellowfin's stately 10-knot cruising speed. A pair of well-fitted-out 18-foot aluminum skiffs with 150-hp Yamaha outboards can take people up the inlets to hidden beaches or salmon fishing. A half dozen kayaks allow people to paddle close to sea life. There is even a 14-foot clinker-built sailing dingy. A set of motorbikes can be loaded aboard one of the skiffs that has a landing-craft style ramp to offload the machines onto the beach.

Never one to stand still, Griffinson has just had a boat shed custom built to house Pacific Yellowfin. This is a huge and costly structure with a 36-by-120-foot pond in a concrete float that is 56-by-130-feet overall.

Always thinking ahead, he made the shed's pond 6 feet wider than his boat's beam, giving him the ability to lease storage for up to four smaller vessels. But the immediate need for the shed is to get his pride and joy in and out of the deluge of Pacific Northwest rain. With plans for winter gourmet cruises to the Gulf Islands, he wants to have the boat ready to go on short notice, while protecting the topsides from the ravages of freshwater.

Griffinson is quick to point out that his charter company, Great Bear Coastal Maritime Co. Ltd., is not a stand-alone business and less quick to estimate just how much money he has put into the vessel. Rather, it represents a way of life that is supported by an owner-operator who is, on the one hand, a careful businessman, and, on the other, an incurable romantic and wooden boat nut.

For more about the charter operation, see www.pacificyellowfin.com.

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