A cruise ship that used to stop in Petersburg will be using the small town as its home port this summer. Its tour company is the latest of several to add the town to an itinerary peddling the authentic Alaskan experience.
Sally Dwyer and Brian Lynch are Petersburg tour guides but on Friday they were the ones waiting to receive a tour. They were standing in front of the Safari Quest, which for a cruise ship is tiny. It has room for just 22 passengers and 10 crew members. Dwyer was actually inside, years ago, when her mom was running a tour company.
“I’ve been down for cocktail parties on the after-deck,” she said. “It’s just nice to know they’re back.”
In 2010, the company American Safari Cruises ended the route that used to pass through Petersburg. Other companies have come and gone over the years, most running relatively small ships that leave milder impacts on local amenities and environment compared to big ones. Dwyer says the simplicity of these cruises creates more opportunity to talk to people about their lives.
“One of the most oft asked questions is what’s your cost for building? How many kids are in your school? What percentage go on to college? I mean they’re interested in your community – how you live on the island,” Dwyer said.
Lynch is a retired biologist. He said he uses tours to teach people about Alaskan commercial fishing and wildlife, describing “what the boats do and how we manage fisheries here and whatnot. Anything they want to know.”
The two local guides swapped stories about conversations they have had with cruise passengers over the years. Eventually, a man in a blue vest spotted us from the boat and invited us aboard.
We walked into a low-lit parlor with cushioned walls and a bar nearby. Many handshakes ensued as local food suppliers, travel agents, and tour guides mingled with staff. I lost Dwyer and Lynch in the group and follow second captain Maiwenn Beadle on a tour of the ship.
One level up from the main deck, a map of Pacific islands hangs above a low bookshelf. Big windows look out on the Wrangell Narrows, which the boat will travel through tomorrow. Beadle showed me the four luxury bedrooms, with sliding glass doors that open onto balconies over the water. There are seven more rooms on the floors below.
Voices from the parlor drifted up a spiral staircase between the rooms and the bridge, where the captains operate the boat.
“So the bridge is open at certain times of the day – it’s not open at night – but the guests can come out and hang out in the bridge,” Beadle said.
We walked up to the top level of the boat, which held a rack of two person kayaks, a raft, and a hot tub. On the main deck, there were stand up paddle boards and several more places to watch whales and other wildlife. From Petersburg, the boat would head to the native community of Kake, three wilderness areas, and a national monument.
Captain Denee Blanchard said the purpose of the Safari Quest is to take people off the beaten track.
“We’re taking this to a lot of little places that our other boats don’t go to, and doing a turn day in Petersburg where we pick up and drop off guests is kind of a perfect opportunity for that,” she said.
Blanchard has personal ties to this area. She lived in Petersburg when she was young. Her father Dan Blanchard used to head American Safari Cruises. He’s now CEO of UnCruise, the company running this boat. She has been captaining for 3 years, and says while it is still rare to have a woman in charge of a cruise ship, the industry is changing.
“On the airplane today I heard a couple talking and they’re like, ‘we’re going on a 22 passenger vessel out of Petersburg.’ And there is no other 22 passenger vessel so I was like, ‘hi, are you guys going on the Safari Quest?’ and they’re like, ‘yes’,” Blanchard said.
She told them, ‘I wanted to introduce myself, because I’m the captain,’ and for a few awkward moments, they did not understand.
“And they were like, oh gosh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know what a captain of a boat should look like,” she said.
She says she’s inspired by the chance to spread the word about issues affecting Alaska, like glaciers melting due to climate change. The boat may also spread the word about Petersburg. More immediately though, it will bring money to the local government in the form of moorage payments and taxes and to the private sector in exchange for hotel rooms and food.