Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 11, 2017

© Jeremy Koreski

The Pacific Yellowfin's "seakindly hull" makes for exceptionally smooth sailing — and no seasickness.

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The Gulf Islands in grand style

Built to sink German U-Boats, the Pacific Yellowfin has a new patrol — luxury cruises up BC's Inside Passage

The only time I happily turn into an early-morning person is on board small boats. It’s something about the salt air, distant cawing gulls and the aroma of the crew’s brew wafting into my stateroom. The first guest awake aboard the Pacific Yellowfin, I hugged my steaming latte, cradled a just-baked banana muffin and settled into my favourite vantage point — a hefty 19th-century barber-shop chair in the wheelhouse, a prop from the movie Mississippi Burning that serves as the captain’s chair.

I was on a four-day cruise around British Columbia’s Gulf Islands and we had just spent our first night off Galiano Island. When I smelled bacon sizzling I also spotted our guide, Dominic “Dom” Giossan, lowering the first of a pod of kayaks into Montague Harbour, where we had anchored. I dropped everything and slid into a red one, gliding across glassy waters that rippled as seals heads popped up for a peek. A bald eagle hovered above lush forest, and blindingly white beaches were tinged pink with the first rays of sun.

In that soft sepia light the creamy-coloured Pacific Yellowfin looked every bit the retro character she is. Built in 1943, the boat is living a new life as a lovingly refitted luxury yacht with four traditional staterooms, all varnished mahogany and teak, polished brass portholes, but with 21st-century mod cons. For the past decade this 35-metre vessel has been plying the Inside Passage along BC’s coast exclusively as a charter yacht. But this year, for the first time, the Yellowfin also began taking individual travellers on board for the kind of pampered experience once only enjoyed by the likes of Pearl Jam, Uma Thurman and the Saudi Arabian oil minister.

AN IRISHMAN’S OBSESSION

I had boarded the previous afternoon at the 1880s Britannia Heritage Shipyard in Steveston, near Vancouver International Airport. We chugged from the mouth of the Fraser River into the Georgia Strait, to the rhythm of the original engines’ charmingly old-fashioned “pocketa-pocketa.” Champagne was offered, but there was a universal call for the ship’s signature Bloody Caesars spiked with organic Schramm’s potato vodka from Pemberton, BC. The drinks were delivered on the sunny front deck in glasses the size of vases, just as a pod of harbour porpoises surfaced portside.

A coastal freighter built in Maine during World War II for the US military, the Pacific Yellowfin was originally dubbed JMP64 – a Junior Mine Planter to protect east coast harbours from German attacks. The 415-ton vessel saw only a few months of military service before the war ended and she was sold to the California Department of Fish and Game for tuna research — hence her name. She then retired to the Sacramento River for decades as a houseboat, then became a research vessel and later luxury yacht.

Up in the wheelhouse, captain and owner Colin Griffinson grinned like a kid as he spun the very big wheel of his beloved boat. “I’m not ashamed to say it,” he said in his lilting Irish accent, “I have wooden boat disease!” The Dublin-born master carpenter had already refurbished a 72-foot salmon seiner, his family’s home, when he saw the Douglas fir, cedar and American white oak Pacific Yellowfin at the Olympia, Washington tugboat races in the 1990s. It was love at first sight. It took years, but in 2000 Griffinson finally convinced the then-owner, millionaire oilman Peter Whittier, to trade boats – and caps! Since then the passionate Irishman has sunk roughly $2 million into refitting her, the only vessel of her kind still in existence.

The ship now offers active, small group trips, comfortably holding eight passengers, or up to 12 if there are kids. The other passengers on my cruise were two Vancouver families – Marc and Karen Telio, with their teens Sophia and Jack, and Cyndie Martinez and Gus Jassal with five-year-old Javeen. There are plenty of toys available for both land and water; when engineer Jack Dixon showed me around, he pointed out a floating box of mountain bikes, mopeds, kayaks, wakeboards and more, as well as a speedboat and hot tub.

Today, the Yellowfin’s beat is around the Gulf Islands, throughout Desolation Sound and north to the Great Bear Rainforest. “She was built with a seakindly hull to carry heavy loads with stability,” said Colin. “That, along with the fact that we only sail sheltered Inside Passage waters makes her a great cruising yacht even for people who fear they’ll be queasy. No one ever gets seasick.”

A ONE-MILE DIET

The characters who now man the Yellowfin are as intriguing as the boat. Among them is Czechoslovakian chef Milan Kocourek who created a lavish first night dinner in the open galley of organic filet mignon and a dessert of deadly-delicious olive oil cake and lemon curd. Served on the fantail deck at a round wooden table stylishly supported by two old propellers, the surroundings were Old World luxury, but the atmosphere was of a cozy, casual ski lodge. Milan has worked in Vancouver’s best restaurants and currently cooks at Whistler Mountain’s top rated Bearfoot Bistro and Araxi restaurants. A snowboard-addict on the winter hills, he creates culinary magic during summers on board the Yellowfin, his wake-board propped up on the deck awaiting a pull by the speedboat.

After our next morning’s paddle we motored across to Saltspring, the biggest of the Gulf Islands, for the weekly Saturday morning market (saltspringmarket.com). It was a lively event on the waterfront in the funky main village of Ganges, a gathering of farmers, new-agers and greying hippies offering everything from island-made cheeses and breads to chair massages, kale chips and bags made from recycled t-shirts. A sitar player sat cross-legged amid the booths setting an ethereal mood while on the beach a pair of Trumpeter swans watched over their babies.

After an on-board lunch of de-constructed sushi that we re-constructed ourselves, we dropped crab traps into the water en route to North Pender Island. While the others headed off to go fishing, Karen and I disembarked with Dom on a pebble beach among driftwood logs for a hike up Mount Norman. It was a steady climb on a scenic route among cedar and red-barked arbutus trees. At the summit Dom handed out celebratory hydrating liquid electrolytes — chilled microbrews from Victoria. Born in Spain, the 50 year-old diplomat-brat grew up in cities around the world before completing his Masters’ degree in law at McGill University. But he never practiced a day in his life, preferring instead a career guiding and organizing extreme adventures in every corner of the planet. He was a walking guidebook and it was an experience to hear him describe a place in a perfectly enunciated regional accent, be it Italian or Indian!

Several line-caught rockfish joined our crab bounty on the way back to the boat. “Some trips we catch your own meals then watch Milan prepare it,” said Colin. “We’ll can pull up salmon, trout, halibut, prawns, crabs, fill buckets clam-digging or pick our own wild oysters – a one-nautical-mile diet!”

SAILING THROUGH TIME

On our last day we jumped into the speedboat shuttle to Saturna Island for a bicycle ride along a quiet seaside country road with views of the distant snowy profile of Washington’s Mount Baker. We arrived at the East Point Lighthouse to a picnic table set with a lunch spread including chilled BC wines. Taking the long way back to the Yellowfin, we puttered alongside colonies of seals and sea lions lounging on rocks, but whales so often seen in this area remained elusive, even to whale watching boats with whom Colin checked in regularly. Then, after a swim alongside the Yellowfin, it was time for champagne in the hot tub.

As we finished our last supper, engineer Jack Dixon emerged from his pristine engine room where he likes to play opera and bluegrass over the sound of the engine. Dixon studied applied mathematics at university for several years before running off and spending more than 50 years aboard tugboats and freighters along the coast. Though retired 11 years ago, he has spent that time working on the Yellowfin, “He’s a genius,” Dom had told us. “He can do a crossword puzzle in minutes.”

Now he came to share another of his hobbies — reciting from memory vaudeville monologues, humorous stories composed in the 1930s to keep patrons in their seats while scenery was changed on theatre stages. For 20 minutes, with just the light of the sunset and only a single voice for entertainment, we laughed at a hilarious story about a couple who had taken their son to the zoo, only to see the lad eaten by a lion. Perhaps not politically correct now, but for 20 minutes on board this 70-year-old ship we were transported to another era without even raising the anchor.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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