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February 17, 2020

Small Ship Cruise Review: Pacific Catalyst

Pacific Catalyst

Pacific Catalyst operates a pair of historic wooden ships that have amazingly long and complex histories. Each carries no more than 12 passengers on primarily Southeast Alaskan itineraries to remote locations along the Inside Passage in search of adventure and wildlife under the sea, atop it, on shore and in the air. One of the vessels also cruises to Baja California.

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

CATALYST II was built in 1931 as a state-of-the-art oceanographic ship for the University of Washington. In WWII she served as an armed vessel with a machine gun paced atop the pilothouse while carrying depth charges and patrolling the Aleutian Islands looking for Japanese submarines. After the war she worked for various companies, including mining operations, carrying an assortment of cargos. Some owners lived aboard the vessel. Then in the 21st century, she was converted to take up to 12 passengers and a crew of 4 or 5. Enjoy the fine craftsmanship aboard this wooden boat.

Alaska Catalyst II

The Catalyst II in Alaska. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

WESTWARD was completed in 1924 for the Alaska Coast Hunting and Cruising Co. and pioneered fishing, hunting and adventure travel in remote regions of Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska.

Well-known passengers included Bing Crosby, Walt Disney, George Eastman, E.F. Hutton, Marjorie Merriweather Post, Hal Roach, John Wayne, and numerous other VIPs of the era.

During WWII, she became a patrol boat stationed off the California coast before returning to the Pacific Northwest, operating for 20 years as both private yacht and charter vessel. She now takes 11 passengers for her present owner; 12 if one is a minor.

Pacific Catalyst ship Westward

The handsome Westward. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Both sail at 8 knots and operate with their original diesel engines that in itself is a fine feature. Battery power allows them to travel silently for up to 12 hours, ideal for silent maneuvers to get close to animals on shore, creatures in the sea and in the air. Portholes may open or not depending on the cabin.

Diesel Engines of Pacific Catalyst ships

Both ships operate with their original diesel engines. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

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Passenger Decks

2 and not surprisingly, no elevator.

Passenger Profile

Adventuresome types who are serious explorers of the world around them.

Price

Pricey $$$

What’s Included

CATALYST: Excursions (including kayaks), plus wine and beer as well as other beverages are included (though not hard alcohol, which is BYOB).

WESTWARD: Excursions (including kayaks), plus on Sea of Cortez cruises, wine, beer and well spirits are included.

Pacific Catalyst kayaks

Kayaks tethered to the Westward in Alaska. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Itineraries

SE Alaska

Both ships spend the summer in Alaska’s Inside Passage.

  • 7 days in the eastern Inside Passage, Juneau to Petersburg and vice versa;
  • 7 days in the western Inside Passage;
  • 8 days from Juneau, Petersburg, and Sitka with anchorages at Admiralty, Baranof and Kupreanof Islands;
  • 7-, 8- and 10-day intensive touring in Glacier Bay National Park, when most small ships only spend one, while the big ships a half day.
Alaska glaciers

Cruising Alaska up-close and personal. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Depending on the destination, game seen may be black and brown bears, humpback whales, sea otters, sea lions, mountain goats, and events such as calving glaciers, plus small isolated villages and the local culture.

Bears on an Alaska cruise

Getting close up to bears on a small-ship cruise. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

San Juan Islands

A 6-day cruise that visits a number of different islands, looking for Steller sea lions, orca whales, harbor seals, minke whales, Pacific Whiteside Porpoises. Drop anchor at Garrison Bay, the site of a British mid-19th-century encampment, to go exploring trails and shorelines. Kayak against the backdrop of stunning snow-capped Mt Rainier, and the Cascade and Olympic Mountains.

Check out Stuart Island for a climb to a lighthouse to watch passing ships and private yachts pass along the channel; Sucia Island with its geological and cultural histories, and also stands of madronas, a broadleaf evergreen tree that keeps its leaves throughout the winter; Matia Island with unique geological and topographical features; and finally a return Friday Harbor hopefully seeing more waterborne species.

Mt Rainier San Juan islands

The backdrop of Mt. Rainier. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Sea of Cortez

These 9- to 12-day cruises, from December to March, explore Baja California with activities such as snorkeling, kayaking and hiking, sometimes on nearby islands. Wildlife to see includes white sharks, sea lions, frigate birds, and gray whales. Lots of whales! Drive over to the west coast, Bahia Magdalena, for migrating whales seen from a panga while moving though a lagoon.

Baja whale watching

Baja whale watching. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Why Go?

Alaska: Serious pursuit of wildlife and while cruising in fjords, bays, narrow inlets, on and near islands, while aboard very intimate ships with personalized service.

When to Go?

Southeast Alaska — May to September.

Sea of Cortez — December to March.

Cabins

CATALYST II has upper and lower bunk cabins, double beds, some with private facilities and others shared.

WESTWARD has single and double bunks, private shower and toilet. Portholes may open or not.

Pacific Catalyst in Alaska

A cozy Westward cabin. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Pacific Catalyst

Another Westward cabin angle (3). * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Public Rooms

Both vessels have a dining-cum-lounge. And there’s a lounging space at the stern.

Pacific Catalyst ships

The back deck is a popular gathering place. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Dining

Where possible, organic food is sourced from local farmers and fisher folk in cruising areas — SE Alaska, San Juan Islands, and Baja California, especially seafood, fruit and vegetables.

fresh fish in Alaska

Smoked black cod fritters. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Pacific Catalyst food

A delicious shrimp chipotle handroll. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Activities & Entertainment

The crew is well versed in local history and know where the wildlife is located. Talks are informal and often on site when game is seen such as sea otters, sea lions, humpback whales, mountain goats, grey wolves, black and brown bears. Kayaking may be with a naturalist and hiking along nature trails.

kayaking

Both boats carry along kayaks. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

Special Notes

Two historic vessels that have engaged in many different roles and have been lovingly looked after.

Along the Same Lines

Atlas Ocean Tours with its 6-passenger vessel ATLAS cruising the Inside Passage along the British Columbia coast.

Contact

Pacific Catalyst II, Inc. P.O. Box 3117, Friday Harbor, WA, 98250; 360-378-7123.

Captain Bill

Pacific Catalyst’s Captain Bill. * Photo: Pacific Catalyst

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Posted In:

Alaska, Coastal Ship & Line Reviews, Mexico/Pacific Coast, North America


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