Why Does Small Ship Cruising Cost So Much?

Back in March I posted a blog about our Weekend Getways in the San Juan Islands. It wasn’t long, just a couple of paragraphs about what you could see and do in the San Juans. I even tossed in a picture of some cupcakes in the hopes that a delicious chocolate cupcake would help encourage someone to pick up the phone and make a reservation.

I was really happy when I noticed that a friend of mine had posted my blog to her Facebook. What I wasn’t ready for was for one of the comments. The woman commenting said we had a nice tour, but couldn’t believe how much we charged ($695 per person for 3 days and 2 nights.)

Over the summer I’ve been thinking about that comment and the perception of  value. I’ve come to realize that many people base their decision on booking a cruise by how cheap it is. The large cruise ship companies have trained us into believing that cruising is cheap and they reinforce that notion with too-good-to-be-true, heart-stoppingly-low offers; one offer I received last week was for a 7-night cruise in the Caribbean for $399. A 7-night cruise in Alaska on the David B costs $4200.

“So, what do I get on a small ship cruise that’s worth so much more?” you might be asking yourself. Here are a few of the qualities that makes coming aboard the David B for your Alaska cruise worth the price.

Solitude – On the David B you’ll spend your vacation in quiet coves, on remotes beaches, and surrounded by beautiful forests. We stay away from the busy Ports of Call that have their waterfronts obscured with a line-up of  cruise ships each carrying up to 3000 people. On your cruise with us you won’t have that frustrating and crowded feeling of being part of a heard. Instead, you’ll feel immersed in nature with space to breathe and unwind.

Quiet Anchorage
A Quiet Anchoarge in Alaska

Flexible Itineraries – While we do have itineraries, we often make changes to them depending on the weather or new information about wildlife or other things. For instance, a few weeks ago we had a day where we’d planned to go on a hike, but we discovered that there was a pod of orca whales nearby. We asked our group if they wanted to continue on to the hike or head out to see the whales. It was no contest, the whales won. We had an amazing afternoon watching the whales. If we’d been on a fixed schedule, we would have had to ignore the nearby whales and our passengers wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see orcas up close.

More Time with Wildlife – Since we have a flexible schedule, we are able to spend as much time as we want watching wildlife. If we come across a pod of humpback whales bubble feeding, we can stop and watch. If we’re in a kayak cruising along the shore and a bear ambles down to the beach, we can take the time to observe it feeding. At anchor you can sit on deck or in the pilothouse and watch eagles, river otters, bears and deer.

Humpbacks at Admiralty Island
Humpbacks at Admiralty Island

Small Groups – We are limited to six passengers. This makes your cruise more intimate. You can charter the whole boat, or come on a mixed cruise where you’ll have a chance to meet interesting and adventurous people like yourself.

Individualized Attention – When you make your reservation for your cruise on the David B, you’ll be working with us, Christine and Jeffrey,  the owners and operators of the David B and Northwest Navigation Co. Because we do our own booking, we work with all of our passengers to make sure that when you come aboard the David B, it feels like you are coming home.

Gourmet Meals Cooked Especially for You – Each meal you have with us is cooked with you in mind. Every cruise’s menu is different. We also spend a lot of time between trips searching out quality ingredients to prepare our meals with. While we do have favorite meals to make and share with you, I talk with my passengers before they come aboard to get a feel for which of our meals they’ll like the best. To us knowing our passengers better helps us make menus that will keep people coming back year after year.

Loaf of Bread from the MV David B's Wood Cook Stove

Preserving History – By choosing to cruise on the David B, you’re helping to preserve a bit of Alaska’s fishing history. Your reservations makes it possible for us to keep the boat going. Owning and operating a wooden workboat from 1929 is a privileged and it costs us a lot to maintain.  Without passengers like you, the David B and it’s last-of-its kind Washington Iron Works engine would be lost.

Supporting Sustainable Tourism – When you choose to cruise with us, you are making a statement that shows you are committed to small footprint, sustainable tourism, where our goal is for you to have a quality experience.

I hope that when you are thinking of all the options that are available to you for a cruise to Alaska, you’ll keep in mind that, while you can go on a  cruise that is cheap, you could go on a cruise that is extraordinary.

Day of the Pacific-Whited Sided Dolphins

We had just finished crossing Cape Caution on our Southbound Inside Passage cruise. The seas had been calm with a low comfortable swell from the Pacific Ocean. The outside air was cool and we spent the morning motoring in and out of fog. I’d was busy most of the morning making bread, preparing for lunch and hanging out on the bridge deck with Jeffrey and one of our passengers. Everyone else was laughing and playing a card game in the galley.

Pacific White-Sided Dolphins come over to the David B
Pacific White-Sided Dolphins come over to the David B

Once we were out of the ocean swell and back inside the calm water, Jeffrey asked if I’d drive for a while. I’d done all the engine room checks that day and he too wanted to spend some time down there in the space I call his “Guy Spa.”

“Sure, not a problem,” I said taking the wheel. “Will you be down there long?”

“Not too long. I want to clean the filters in the watermaker, so maybe a half hour or so,” he said.

“Perfect. I’ll let you know if anything interesting happens. I replied.

I checked the chart to make sure I knew where Jeffrey wanted me to go, and then slid on to the stool in front of the wheel. Our passenger, Ian and I chatted for a while and I kept my eyes open for any interesting wildlife that I could point out. There were Rhinoceros Auklets, Pigeon Gullemonts, and Marbled Murrelets, but it was hazy and hard to see if there was any bigger wildlife in the distance.

After a while Ian and I stopped talking and just watched out the windows. A line of white water was off in the distance and hard to make out. There wasn’t a rock there. I checked. I figured it must be a tide rip and I kept watching. Some of the haze began to clear. I picked up my binoculars and looked a the line. It was still too far to see exactly what was going on out there. I set the binoculars down and kept watching the line. Ian asked me if I was seeing something.

“Well, I’m not sure,” I answered. “Do you see that line up there?” I pointed off in the distance.

“Uh, yes, I think I do,” he said with his Australian accent.

“Well I’m hoping that it will turn out to be a group of Dall’s Porpoises. They’re over there, kind of close to shore. Maybe when Jeffrey gets back up here we can go in closer and have a look.” I handed him my binoculars and asked him to keep his eye on the line of white water.

“There, there! I think I saw something jump,” he said and handed the binoculars to me.

I lifted the binoculars to my eyes and focused. They were still a ways off, but we were getting closer. Close enough to see small black-ish shapes coming out of the water.

“How many do you think there are?” Ian asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe 25 or more.” I replied. “They’re too far away.”

We continued to watch the line of what we were thinking we probably porpoises when Jeffrey came up from the engine room.

“How’s it going?” he asked as he stepped up to the bridge deck.

“Great. Are you ready to take the wheel?” I asked.

“Yeah, sure. Is there anything I need to know about? he said moving over towards me.

“Well, yeah. There’s a bunch of splashing sea mammals ahead of us. I think maybe they’re Dalls” I said.

“Where?” Jeffrey said with a hint excitement.

“Over there, They’re kind of far off and maybe close to some rocks,” I explained.

Mother and Calf Pacific White-Sided Dolphins
Mother and Calf Pacific White-Sided Dolphins

Jeffrey glanced over to the line of splashing sea mammals and then over to the chart. “Looks like there’s plenty of space over there. I say we go that way.”

I turned the wheel as Jeffrey called out to the rest of the passengers that we were coming up on some porpoises. The card game ended and everyone rushed out on deck. We cruised towards the porpoises, and almost at the same time a few of them began to break for the line and swim quickly towards the David B.

“They’re coming at us!” I heard shouts from the bow of the boat and I looked just in time to see a couple scythe shaped fins in the water. Then one jumped just a few feet from the boat. I got a good look at that one.

“Hey Jeffrey. I don’t think those are Dall’s porpoises,” I said.

“Yeah, I just saw that too. Looks like they’re Pacific White-Sided Dolphins,” he grinned. “You better go out on deck. I’ll take the wheel.”

I joined everyone outside and explained what we were looking at. As we talked we watched groups of three and four dolphins taking turns riding the bow. My favorites were a mother with her calf. Soon the boat was surrounded by Pacific White-Sided Dolphins. What started out as a group of twenty-five or so, blossomed in to a pod of well over a hundred and fifty. They splashed all around us. It was hard to know where to look. Some of the dolphins would look up at us as they rode the bow. Others would swim off and then circle fast to the back of the boat.

The dolphins played with us for a half hour or so then slowly began to peel off from the David B, much in the same way as they had come to greet us. I went back into the galley and stoked the stove. Even though it was a summer day, it was still chilly on deck and I knew as soon as the dolphins left we’d all be back inside warming ourselves. As I stepped into the galley I stopped and watched the pod angle away from the boat. There were still a few close by. I wished I could thank them for their show, but instead I just smiled and wished them well.

Small Ship Cruising Alaska – The Loss of Cruise West

It’s been about a month since Cruise West announced that they were ceasing their operations. In the tail-end of our busy season on the M/V David B, we were surprised to hear that they had gone bankrupt, but we too consumed with our fall operations to really take in what it means to us when a company like Cruise West is no longer around.

For the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about next year and how our prospective passengers will hear about us. I know many of our passengers have gone on Cruise West tours in the past. That was their first exposure to small ship cruising and it primed their enthusiasm to find an even more intimate cruising experience – something like the cruises we offer on the David B. The loss of Cruise West also means that there is now an even bigger gap between mega cruise ship companies and owner/operator tour companies. Without the advertising dollars of Cruise West firing up the imagination of prospective passengers, it makes more work for us to educate prospective passengers that there are alternatives to seeing Alaska on an enormous cruise ship.

Many of our passengers began their search for an Alaskan Cruise by typing in “Small Ship Cruise Alaska” or “Small Cruise Alaska” and found Cruise West’s website sitting at the top of their search results. After looking at beautiful, professionally staged photos of smiling, happy people in expedition-style skiffs racing to the face of a tidewater glacier, close-ups of brown bears and breaching whales, our passengers asked themselves, “Hmmm, what else is there?” That’s when we would capture our passenger’s desire for a truly individualized cruising experience in Alaska. Maybe it will be easier for people looking for a quality small ship experience to find us more directly. I hope so, but I wonder without the bigger voice of Cruise West out there promoting small ship cruises, if we’ve lost something valuable. I hope not.

In the coming months we’ll be talking to more people who would have gone on a cruise with Cruise West, and I welcome everyone who had hoped to see Alaska with Cruise West on board the David B. We have admired the cruises that Cruise West offered and we look forward to sharing our style of small ship cruising in Alaska on an even smaller scale.

End of the Season Blues

Christine on the deck of the David B
On deck of the David B

We finished our last trip of the year on Sunday. It’s always with a touch of sadness that the summer cruising ends. I love being on the David B when it’s filled with the hub-bub of passengers, the wood stove is cranked to eleven, and the smell of baking bread and onions sauteing in butter fills every corner of the pilothouse. I love listening to Jeffrey chatting away on the VHF to other boats or having a conversation with one of our guests. I love to hear to the sound of the our 3-cylinder Washington-Estep down in the engine room or while I’m on deck. I love it when people gather to watch us come to a dock and ask us questions about the boat. I love the appreciation and the compliments we receive from so many people when they see what we have done with the David B, and most of I love the simple pleasure of just being on the David B.

The sadness I feel at the end of the season is because I miss all of our passengers and getting to know who they are and sharing in their stories. I miss cooking on my wood stove and seeing new places and old. I miss the excitement of finding whales or seeing a bear in the wild, and of course, I miss being on the coolest boat in any harbor.

I know the fun of cruising on the David B will all start up again soon. Too soon, when I look at the winter To-Do List. Time will fly and in a blink of an eye, we’ll be heading out of the harbor and leaving for Alaska. It happens like that every year.

I’m already excited about the trips we have on the schedule for 2011 and getting to know the folks who will be traveling with us. In the coming months, I’ll be keeping you updated with all the work we are doing on the boat this winter, our trips, destinations and thoughts I have about owing and operating a small cruise ship.  The David B is my passion and more than anything I love to share it. I hope you will have time to follow along with my posts this winter or even better come on a cruise with us next season.