10,000 Miles: Aspen Takes on Alaska
The afternoon horizon of Petersburg, Alaska is clear except for bald eagles and jagged mountain peaks as I walk to Middle Harbor from the airport. I’m eager to rendezvous with Larry Graf – founder, owner, and lead designer of Aspen Power Catamarans – and crew after my flight from Seattle. At long last, I’m about to hop aboard a 40-foot Aspen Power Catamaran C120 for a proper multiday cruise. Bring it on!
I feel as eager as I do for a few reasons. First, I’ve followed Aspen Power Catamarans for a while, and even interviewed Graf several months prior at the Aspen factory in Burlington, Washington. The tour of the bustling facility and builds in various phases of construction with the man himself was eye opening to say the least…
“There are a ton of features on power catamarans, especially my power proa Aspen designs,” Graf said proudly before sketching out drawings for me in a conference room of his factory back in March. Graf began to tout some compelling physical concepts with regards to his hull forms. As I listened, I became progressively more interested and engaged. Buoyancy was a key topic of discussion. For example, for every inch a C120 is pushed into the water beyond her resting waterline, she gains about 2,700 pounds of buoyancy per square inch. The tunnel section (i.e., the empty space between the two hulls) has about 22 inches of clearance at the stern, so if the boat is pushed 10 inches downward, the resulting force translates to 27,000 pounds of buoyancy pushing back.
“Here’s the key; the boat only weighs 24,000 pounds. See what I’m getting at?” Graf explained. “Thanks to the buoyant forces, the boat naturally bobs through waves as a full displacement boat. The driver doesn’t get that slapping feeling like with a planing catamaran design.”
Additionally, Aspen designs abide by a strict ratio of tunnel height vs. width between the hulls. For anybody who has been to a boat show, catamarans come in all shapes and sizes, with twin hulls that are set either very far apart for maximum space aboard or closer together.
“The most common power catamaran design flaw is when the height of the tunnel is one foot and the width of the tunnel is five feet, for example. A one to five ratio will guarantee a boat that will get the tunnel section banged in about 12 inches of chop. You need travel; think about the hull shape as a suspension system kind of like a dirt bike,” explained Graf. All Aspen designs follow a 2.5:1 tunnel height to width ratio, the ideal for seaworthiness according to Graf.
Of course, as a catamaran, Aspen power cats enjoy many of the benefits of their peers. Thanks to the beamier design, all Aspens, even the 28-footer, have a wall-to-wall master stateroom forward with king-sized island berth. In general, power catamarans tend to be 20-30% more fuel-efficient than monohulls of similar length overall, and Aspen has capitalized on its builds’ efficiencies by incorporating a single engine design. Bottom line, Aspen claims it needs far less horsepower to achieve superior performance than its competitors. The saved weight also translates to better fuel economy. Efficiency is Graf’s mantra, and the word punctuates his explanations like exclamation points.
Efficiency! Excelsior! The factory visit and more swirl in my head as I walk past the Viking statue in downtown Petersburg and close in on the harbor. Graf had some pretty bold claims from the comfortable seat in his factory. Here in Alaska, we get to put those words to the test.
But getting the chance to see what a C120 can really do is only half of the reason I’m excited to hop aboard. This vessel, Knot Wafflen’, has her own story to tell. Knot Wafflen’ and her owners, married couple David and Sue Ellen Jenkins (nicknamed “The Admiral”), are completing their Alaska leg of a 10,000-mile adventure that ends at the Annapolis Boat Show in October 2018.
The journey began May 8, 2017, at Cap Sante Marina in Anacortes, Washington on an overcast day. I spoke with the excited couple and Sue Ellen’s brother, Captain Blake Eder, who offered his skills as a professional captain for the journey between press photo ops and speeches at the docks before takeoff. The champagne bottle was broken on the bow and the air heavy with anticipation…
“I was the CEO and owner of a company called Golden Malted, which was the largest waffle company in the U.S.,” said David Jenkins when we sat around the large galley table at the Anacortes launch party. “Obviously, I’m not waffling anymore,” Jenkins joked. The name is also a nod to one of Aspen’s and most power catamarans’ design benefits: excellent tracking. While new to cruising and boat ownership, the Jenkins’ were confident in Knot Wafflen’s capabilities and knew they had Captain Eder’s salty experience to fall back on when needed. Captain Eder even manages the Knot Wafflen’s blog, link available at aspenpowercatamarans.com.
“The Aspen design is incredible. Everything you read about, it does,” said Captain Eder, who holds a U.S. Coast Guard captain’s license, delivers boats professionally, and completed four years in the Navy. “I’ve got some miles,” Captain Eder grinned at his understatement. “The Aspen crew takes an incredible amount of pride in their work. I’ve gotten to know them very well and Larry (Graf) has put together an incredible team. I’m very excited; anxious to get underway and get started,” said Captain Eder.
I snap out of my reflections as I walk over the old boards of Middle Harbor and approach Knot Wafflen’. No longer brand new from the factory, she’s clocked over 2,000 nautical miles by this point having run from Anacortes up the Inside Passage through B.C. to Glacier Bay, Alaska and down to Petersburg, taking her sweet time exploring sites on the way back south. A Walker Bay inflatable paddleboard is neatly packed next to crab traps on the flybridge. She looks none the worse for wear, but definitely in summer cruising mode. Larry Graf is in the dinghy messing with the outboard as we exchange greetings.
I explore the interior as Graf finishes up. The woodwork detailing is excellent, something I didn’t appreciate before. One can clearly follow the grain from top to bottom of a piece across cuts and, to be blunt, it simply looks sexy as hell. Windows run along almost the whole side of the cabin, and the access to the stern cockpit is via a large glass door and a huge window that, when flipped opened, blends the exterior with the interior nicely. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a seat where a passenger would have a bad view underway. Graf joins me, shaking his head.
“A darn paper towel was sucked into the carb!” Graf half chuckles, half sighs. Before long, the crew is assembled and we are on our way to Wrangell after a trip to the fuel dock to top off the twin tanks (220 gallons total). I look at the numbers on the nav display as we dodge crab pots and aluminum fishing runabouts trolling for salmon. We’re cruising against a four-knot current, yet are still maintaining approximately 14 to 16 knots of speed at around 1.2 to 1.5 nautical miles per gallon. The display clocks about 13 to 14 gallons an hour with our RPM at 2,800 to 2,900.
Let that sink in for a second. At this speed, we’re performing similarly to the cruise speed of a decent ski boat. Yet here we are, on a vessel with roomier accommodations of a comparable trawler, with similar, if not better, fuel efficiency. I’ve always believed that any given boat build was a distilled series of compromises, but what to say about a build that’s got the pros of a performance boat with the efficiency and accommodations of a trawler or tug?
Graf and I catch up at the helm in the flybridge, his favorite seat. “We may just be able to say we’re ice strong now after all the glaciers we’ve seen,” Graf says, a proud inventor. Graf has been captain aboard since the Jenkins’ crew change a few weeks ago. He drove Knot Wafflen’ to Skagway, Tracey Arm, and then back to Juneau. “We then went to Haines. It was blowing a gale, but we went anyway. Boat ran great through five to seven footers.” As far as Graf’s favorite part of the voyage, “The coolest places were Tracey Arm and Endicott Arm, south of Juneau.” A ski boat roars past the other way and I instinctively brace for the three-foot wake.
Nothing. Knot Wafflen’ does not budge an inch over the near-beam wake. Graf looks down at the nav display, a Garmin GPSMAP 7612, that can auto route an entire voyage and drive the boat there.
“Ha!” Graf exclaims. “I thought we were on autopilot the last 10 minutes. Oh well.” He nonchalantly taps the screen. Knot Wafflen’ had been tracking a straight-as-an-arrow heading our entire conversation without autopilot.
“Oh well?!” I muse inwardly. We arrive in Wrangell from Petersburg in a couple of hours, travelling around 40-50 nautical miles easily in an afternoon. I settled into the aft-port quarter berth, a cozy arrangement best left for 27-year-old guests like me.
The weather the next day is not ideal for our 80 or so nautical mile cruise to Ketchikan. A low-lying fog sets in and drizzle is the norm as we run south in the morning. Visibility out the cabin is appreciated by crew, who relax and watch the scenery pass by. We anchor at Anan Falls, and Graf and I venture to shore on the dinghy to chance a bear sighting in the Tongass rainforest. Alas, we beat the salmon run and there are no bears to be found, but Graf and I have a good time nonetheless enjoying the freedom of cruising life.
“My big advice to wannabe Alaskan adventurers is to do it in your own boat. You get to go where you want and do it on your own schedule,” Graf says as we motor back to Knot Wafflen’. Turns out, Nick Graf (Larry Graf’s son and Aspen employee) was hard at work aboard while we bumped around the woods and now touts a 50-pound halibut. Although not marketed as a fishing machine, the Aspen C120 does have a wide cockpit that gives Nick Graf ample space to process his prize.
The wind grows to over 17-20 knots late in the day as we pushed on and the seas becomes choppier, but even so, Knot Wafflen’ is good to her name. Even following quartering seas in the three- to six-foot range, conditions that most would not desire in a power catamaran, don’t faze her as she keeps up a lively 16 to 18 knots of cruising speed. Like all boats, a full-on beam sea at low speeds does get her rocking, but I can hardly fault her for that. In fact, her tracking and handling abilities seem to become more pronounced at higher speeds in rougher weather, unlike most monohulls I’ve been on. Knot Wafflen’ pulls into Ketchikan for the night without a fuss, and we celebrate with a few rounds of drinks at the nearby restaurant The Landing.
The morning in Ketchikan signals the end of the trip for our crew. We clean up our respective messes and part ways as owner David Jenkins and Captain Blake Eder arrive into town to take the helm. I catch up with them for their thoughts on the adventure thus far. Knot Wafflen’ is equipped with a spare alternator, but it’s on the blink. Turns out, there’s something up with the auxiliary alternator itself, for this is the second auxiliary alternator failure on the trip. For safety, the two are waiting for the new installation.
“We had another one that was supposed to be shipped in today, but unfortunately they had a tornado in Huntsville, Alabama where it is and so we’re not getting it today,” Jenkins sighs. “We spent a lot of time in Ketchikan before, so we’re going to head out. The boat with its redundant systems is easily operable without this extra alternator. It’s disconnected right now and we’ve got the primary alternator on the engine that’ll operate like any normal boat. It’s good that Aspen has the extra alternator to charge the battery bank, so if it fails we have the backup system.” Jenkins is also clear that the alternator failure is not Aspen’s fault and their support has been excellent. Jenkins looks forward to some “guy time” with Captain Eder on the boat when she’s running again. Fishing and seeing the west side of Prince of Wales Island are the priorities.
As far as the magnificence of Alaska is concerned, “Everybody thinks things are bigger in Texas, but that only holds true until you get to Alaska. That’s the truth.” Like Graf, Jenkins thought Tracey Arm was the coolest stretch, even beating out Glacier Bay. But has Knot Wafflen’ lived up to the Aspen C120 hype?
“Absolutely,” Jenkins says without pause. “When you have heavy seas, it’s just a matter of getting to the right speeds and then you’re cruising on top of the waves. You can cruise at 16 to 18 knots on the crests and it’s amazing.” When pressed, Jenkins and Captain Eder admit that the yacht doesn’t maneuver well in reverse. But how much of a boat’s life is spent in reverse? Additionally, standard bow and stern thrusters make tight maneuvers virtually in place.
“Most cruising boats we’ve come across are 8- to 10-knot boats, and the sphere of travel is so much smaller. In Alaska, you do not want to go into a tide with the wind at your back building up the waves. Because of the speed and distances this boat can travel, we were able to leave Ketchikan, get all the way to Wrangell Narrows at high tide, and get through the narrows to Petersburg in less than a day. Most boats around here would take at least two days to do that. Once in Petersburg, we refueled and were up in Tracey Arm at sundown. Ketchikan to Tracey Arm in one day. Just about anybody else would take three days. That speaks for itself.”
I wish Jenkins and Captain Eder luck as I head back to land for good this time. The Pacific transit down the West Coast to California and Mexico await after the summer in Alaska, another test for Knot Wafflen’. Any sensible skipper contemplating an open Pacific voyage must answer the nagging internal question: Is my boat up to it? I take a last look at Knot Wafflen’ as I walk from the marina and easily imagine her arriving in the Sea of Cortez fresh from Pacific Northwest waters. She has, by all accounts, lived up to the hype so far. For Knot Wafflen’, a 10,000-mile journey to Annapolis isn’t really that far after all.