When the Steamer Portland arrived at Schwabacher’s dock on the Seattle waterfront in 1897, burdened with her ton of Yukon gold, Campbell Church, Sr. was among the 100,000 men from every corner of the globe who caught the prospecting fever and set out for Chilkoot Pass.
Like the vast majority of his counterparts, he returned empty handed. Unlike the others, however, Church would discover sudden riches when he conceived a hydraulic siphon that dried flooded lead mines near his native Joplin, Missouri and put the miners back to work. With plenty of money and an enduring love for the northern wilderness, Church commissioned the celebrated naval architect Ted Geary to build him a yacht fashioned after a salmon cannery tender he admired, and the result was the venerable M/V Westward, an 86-foot excursion vessel launched in 1924 at the Martinolich Shipyard on Maury Island, near Seattle.
Church built her so he could travel the Inside Passage from Seattle along the coast of British Columbia to Alaska for fishing, hunting and camping trips. Today, the old yacht is freshly returned from a Pacific circumnavigation as she nears her 90th birthday.
Alaska Excursion Trade
The vessel marked the transition in Geary’s career, away from workboats and toward the fantail yachts for which he would become so famous. The Westward may have been a private yacht, but she was a rugged vessel capable of all-weather cruising on the storm-tossed North Pacific. Soon Church’s son, Campbell, Jr., took an interest in the Westward and in his father’s beloved north country and conceived the business that would occupy his working life: The Alaska Coast Hunting and Cruising Company. For the next 30 years, with a half-decade hiatus during World War II, Church and his wife Nona operated charter yachts in the Alaska excursion trade.
The list of vessels owned or consigned by the Church family includes legendary names in the history of Pacific yachting, the motor vessels Westward, Nooya, Deerleap, Caroline, Alarwee, Acania, Onawa, Malibu, Cadrew, Electra, Olympus and Taconite.
Their clientele included famous names as well, names like A.C. Gilbert, inventor of the Erector Set, film magnate George Eastman, banker Paul Mellon, beer baron George Pabst, investor E.F. Hutton and show business icons Walt Disney, John Wayne, Phil Harris, Fibber McGee & Molly and Amos & Andy.
Priceless Filmic Record
Cruising was different in the old days, and Campbell Church recorded all of it on film. In fact, the Church Family Films collection represents a priceless and irreplaceable record of early yachting and cruising along Pacific Northwest Coast from Seattle to Alaska.
Church’ s clientele was a Who’ s who of the rich and famous. They traveled in style. The guests dressed for afternoon tea served by stewards in uniform. The dishware was china. The flatware was silver. The divide between passenger and crewmember was strict.
Once they reached the wilds, however, Church and his clients became avid outdoorsmen. They exchanged their elegant clothing for knee-high boots and Filson coats and headed for the wilderness.
Thar she blows!
If styles were different then, the main regard in which Alaska excursions of yesteryear differed from the modern variety lay in the preferred forms of recreation. The lure of an Alaskan excursion to the consciousness of 1920s America was blood sport.
A 1925 promotional brochure extols the myriad fishing and hunting opportunities available to passengers, everything from big game to very big fish:
Another thrilling sport is made possible by the whaling outfit installed aboard the Westward. ‘Thar she blows’, and keen excitement follows, the chase, the intense moments just before the shot, the harpoon hitting true, splashing and boiling water! The tackle includes a Norwegian whale gun shooting harpoons fitted with time fuse bombs, a 10-horse gasoline winch with thirty-six hundred feet of quarter-inch plow steel cable as a fishing line, and all of the accessories for scrapping it out with fifty-ton whales, any one of which can furnish a week's excitement between sunrise and sunset.
1924 Atlas Imperial Engine
Today, after having been pressed into military service during World War II and embarking on a five-year round the world cruise in the 1970s as well as a recent circumnavigation of the Pacific, the Westward is still powered by her original engine.
It’ s a 1923 Atlas Imperial. The boat was launched in 1924 but as you can see, they kind of had to build the boat around it, says engineer John Williams.
Keeping the Atlas going is a little different than operating a modern diesel. There are more than 100 spots on the engine that have to be hand oiled every 2 hours, for example, but Williams is comfortable relying on the old engine even in the Alaska bush.
It’ s been doing it for 80 years, I figure it’ s got a couple left in it. It's lasted better than I have. It’ s at idle now, it idles at 125 and winds out at a screaming 285 but it’ s good enough to push this boat at 8 knots and only burns about 4 gallons per hour doing it so it’s real efficient.
Don Gumpertz bought Westward in 1967. The founder of Electronic Engineers, Incorporated, he would own the boat for a quarter century.
After three years of shakedown cruises and extensive renovations, Gumpertz guided Westward on her longest voyage, a five-year round the world cruise that took him to 60 countries on five continents. It was a much larger world in that era, with few cruising vessels and lots of faraway places.
He and future wife Anna Louise spent the first leg of their journey serving as escort yacht for the Los Angeles Yacht Club's L.A. to Mazatlan race. They were feted upon arrival and the merry making may have influenced their itinerary.
Well that's the story I tell people, Gumpertz says. The Mexican host committee were very generous and had a lovely trophy dinner and free margaritas and the skipper and myself had far too many margaritas and the next morning we were in Mazatlan and started turning right to go home and turned left by accident and 60,000 miles and 5 years later we were back home.
Hugh Reilly bought the Westward in 1993. He had spent most of his career in the Alaska seafood industry. Once the owner of a fleet of fishing trawlers, Reilly always kept his eye out for unique boats. This one was as unique as they come, and there was that name.
Surprisingly, I was unaware of Westward until about 1990, he says.I had been operating a fleet of fishing boats up in the North Pacific and Bering Sea in the eighties under the umbrella of a company named Westward Trawlers. That evolved, into a big shore plant up in Dutch Harbor, Westward Seafoods.
He had chosen the name Westward for his companies because it had an adventuresome air about it. When he flew to Los Angeles for his first glimpse of the motor yacht Westward, he was smitten.
She was about to turn seventy, with an engine that needed constant attention, made of wood, the magnificent material that terrifies the modern yachtsman. He should have known better.
I was quite taken with her, Reilly muses. Blind, though I shouldn't have been, to all that it entailed. I somehow did not receive proper inoculation early in life to be able to resist a boat like Westward.
At first, Reilly operated Westward, as a private yacht. Soon, he put her back in the business that had occupied her early years, Alaskan expeditions.
I put Westward back to work in 1997 in southeast Alaska and operated her there until 2004.
When he retired Westward, from her second stint as an Alaska expedition vessel, Reilly embarked on an 18-month refit that included replacing ninety-two big timbers fastened with iron, to match the original fastenings, and fabricating from scratch multiple parts for the Atlas as he prepared to follow in the wake of his predecessors and embark upon a far flung journey.
We are leaving Port Townsend on Sunday, headed for San Francisco, the beginnings of a voyage that will take us down to Mexico. We will spend March and April in Mexico and early May we are leaving Cabo San Lucas for the Marquesas in French Polynesia. It will be a two-week crossing and we will spend the summer, our summer, in French Polynesia, the Marquesas, Tuamotu Islands and the Society Islands, Tahiti, Bora Bora, the Îles Sous-le-Vent, the Islands under the Wind, French Polynesia. I am hard pressed to explain my rationale for doing this, it probably requires a pretty deep therapy to dig into my psyche and find out why this is going on. If I am crazy, I am having fun doing it.
Now you can join the Westward, and cruise through the decades with this hour-long documentary that chronicles all of her far-flung journeys. Step aboard and get ready for adventure.