This article will help you recognize the many boats you will see in Alaska. The Last Frontier is known for its storied fishing fleet as much as it is for its frigid weather and dog sledding.
Article Overview: Alaska Boats
Alaska Boats & Their Captains
Alaska and its boats are inseparable. When I visit and work in small villages in Alaska, I often associate the people I meet with their dogs and boats. There is the commonly held belief that dog owners, over time, come to look like their beloved pets. I believe it’s the same with boat owners in Alaska. The people look like their boats.
The guy with the epic yacht looks like the guy who would own the massive yacht with a helipad on the back deck. The troller looks like the badass fisherman that they are, and we all know that the dude in the kayak looks like the dude that has been paddling through southeast Alaska on a kayak for weeks.
So as diverse as Alaska’s population, Alaska’s fleet of boats comes in all sizes, purposes, and beauty. Please keep reading to learn everything you need to know about boats in Alaska.
Why Trust Us On Alaska Boats
AlaskaExplored is THE DESTINATION for all things Alaska. Whether planning your next Alaska boating adventure or just curious about the different kind of boats in Alaska, we got you covered. You’ll find expert tips, detailed guides, stunning photographs, and more here.
Together AlaskaExplored has more than twenty years of experience traveling, working, and exploring the beautifully rugged 49th state. Working in television has taken us all around the world, and no place more than Alaska. During our time here, we’ve documented countless stories from every corner and crevasse of the state. We’ve helped showcase the grandeur of this wild place for National Geographic, Discovery, Disney, and Animal Planet. Now we want to share our knowledge and real-life experiences with you!
AlaskaExplored combines years of firsthand experience with extensive research to deliver YOU with the best knowledge to help plan your next great Alaskan adventure.
Together AlaskaExplored has spent months, if not years, working on boats in all parts of Alaska, from the Bering Sea to the Prince William Sound and many of the lakes, rivers, and fjords in between. Keep reading to learn about all the different types of sea faring vessels that inhabit the 49th state.
Alaska is defined as much by its pristine lands as by its seas. While many visitors arrive via plane in Anchorage, many more reach Alaska on its ferry system from Washington, on one of the countless cruise ships, or working onboard the massive fleet of commercial fishing vessels and tenders. Alaska and its boats are as inseparable as Alaskans and their Xtratuff boots.
I’ve spent years working on board commercial fishing boats and science research vessels worldwide, but most of my sea time has been on Alaska’s boats. I am fond of the older wood-hulled trollers, but I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time just kicking around the southeast in a simple skiff.
When it comes to Alaska and its boats, Alaska truly has everything, commercial gill netters, large fishing tenders, trawlers, cruise ships, science research vessels, yachts, skiffs, sailboats, and kayaks. Alaska and many of its people are culturally, economically, and geographically bonded to its waters and the boats needed to access them. Alaskans and their boats are similar to most people in the lower 48 with their vehicles.
This article will explore the varieties of boats you can see in Alaska, the history of boating in Alaska, what it means to the local economy, and what kind of access you can have to these remarkable vessels.
Are you interested in renting a boat for your adventure? We can help you find a great rental. If you are not ready to be your own captain but still want to have a nautical experience in Alaska, we can help you with that too.
Hopefully, you are as fascinated with boats in Alaska as we are. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know to start your adventure in the Alaskan waters.
Types of Alaskan Boats
Not all boats are created equal. Like any nautical community, many boat types exist in any Alaska harbor. We will look at the three major types of boats you’ll see in Alaska and then dive deeper into the subcategories of those ships. The three main types of boats you will find in Alaska are commercial fishing boats, yachts, and cruise ships.
Alaskan Commercial Fishing Boats
The Alaska fishing fleet is one of America’s great treasures, and their salmon fishery is one of the world’s most incredible resources and should be protected, cherished, and respected. The small independent fishermen working their asses off in hundred-year-old wooden boats keeping these traditions alive are truly amazing. They have become one of the iconic elements of the Last Frontier.
There are many different types of fishing boats in Alaska. Here is a list of the most common fishing boats in Alaska. Learn the different styles of commercial fishing and what their boats look like, so you can sound like a local next time you’re on the dock.
Trawlers / Seiners
Fishing trawlers are designed to drag a trawl, or large net, through the water, usually in deep water, catching bottom-dwelling species like shrimp and groundfish. Not to be confused with trolling, which is done with poles. Seiners also deploy a net, called a purse seine, to scoop up a large area of fish within the net, tightening it and enclosing the fish in the net before hauling it back on board.
I haven’t seen many longliners operating in the parts of Alaska I work, but most are larger vessels, usually 50-100 feet, with a covered stern area.
Longliners are designed to deploy a fishing line, frequently miles long, with numerous baited hooks attached at regular intervals. The baited hooks typically target deep-sea species such as halibut, blackcod, lingcod, and rockfish. The line has a bouy attached to both ends and is usually left to soak for 24 hours. When it’s time to retrieve the line, a power wench brings it in on side rollers.
I spent a month on a gillnet boat in Bristol Bay a few summers back while filming a show documenting the salmon fishery. The experience was eye-opening, for sure. The small crew often worked 18 hours straight, catching an insane amount of sockeye. It’s one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen. While the boat was rather small for the five of us onboard, we ate well and had plenty of good times.
A gillnet boat traditionally has a hydraulic-powered drum on the back deck (there are bow-pickers with drums on the bow). The drum is used to deploy and retrieve a gillnet, a net designed to capture fish by ensnaring them by the gills. These boats are usually crewed by two or more people, a captain, and at least one picker on the back deck.
These boats can be seen all over Alaska fishing for salmon but have been made famous by the Bristol Bay fishery. The month in Bristol Bay was a wild ride involving fishermen shooting shotguns at each other and captains purposely running over their competitor’s nets, destroying them and inevitably leading to a confrontation.
Trolling boats are pretty iconic in Southeast Alaska. They’re very identifiable when their trolling polls are out, creating a unique silhouette on the ocean. These slow-moving boats drag their fishing lines with baited hooks or lures through the water while powering through it, drawing the fish’s attention to bite, typically targeting salmon.
The boats are slow, usually cramped, and old, but god damn, are they majestic. The trollers are a unique breed of devoted anglers, the quintessential Alaskan commercial fisherman.
Most of America is familiar with crab boats, made infamous by the Discovery show Deadliest Catch. These steel-hulled work boats, outfitted with hydraulic pot haulers, are docked at many Alaska harbors. Most famously in Dutch Harbor. These boats are large vessels outfitted with a sizable crew compared to trollers and gillnetters.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time on these boats. On board a retired retrofitted crab boat, I did multiple expeditions researching great white sharks. These boats are workhorses capable of traversing the earth at slow reliable speeds. Their design typically has the wheelhouse on the stern with a large open deck, starboard, and port side cranes.
I’ve spent many nights sitting on my porch in Southeast Alaska, watching the yachts go by. These pleasure crafts come in all shapes and sizes, some are practical, and others are obscenely luxurious. Most are personal yachts owned and operated by individuals, while others are fully crewed private cruise ships. Believe it or not you can acutally charter many of these gems if you have the cash.
Alaskan Cruise Ship Boats
Disclaimer: I HAVE NEVER TRAVELLED ON A CRUISE SHIP
I’m not opposed to the idea. I’ve just never had the opportunity. That could change someday, and I’m open to trying new things. The only time I’ve ever been on board a cruise ship was when I was documenting people fleeing Beirut during the 2006 war, I spent half an hour on board photographing the chaos of a mass evacuation during aerial bombings for a news agency.
So, not your typical cruise experience. What I did learn during my brief visit was that these boats are incredible, the size and function of them are indeed an astonishing human feat, and my curiosity makes me hope to board more of them in the future.
Pacific Coast Steamship Co. of San Francisco began offering cruises from San Francisco to Alaska in the 1880s, so cruise line culture has been part of Alaska for over a century. Most tourists visiting the great state of Alaska will do so on a cruise ship. Countless cruises are going up and down the Alaska coastline at any given moment. Some of these ships boast having as many as 20,000 passengers. The giant boats are floating cities, creeping past small Alaskan villages that often have populations under 100.
Large Cruise Ship Operators
There are dozens of large cruise companies offering a variety of vessels to make your Alaska cruise ship experience a reality. Someday we will write an in-depth article on Alaska cruises, but until we have the opportunity to have that experience, we will hold off on writing that article. Here is a list of three major Cruise operators in Alaska.
- Norwegian Cruise: Norwegian Cruise Lines is one of the world’s largest cruise operators. At first glance, their site offers 67 different Alaska cruise excursions, ranging from 5-8 days to 15+ day-long cruises. It’s impressive how many options they have available for their customers. Prices range from $279/ per person (7 Day cruise on the Norwegian Jewel) to $2998/per person (13-day cruise tour on the Norwegian Encore).
- Viking Cruises: Viking Cruises offers an 11-day tour starting at $4599/ per person. The tour will make stops in Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, Skagway, Icy Straight Point, Valdez, and Seward. Viking also offers additional days after your initial excursion. You can add two nights in Anchorage ($699/pp), 5 nights exploring Denali ($3299/pp), or six additional nights exploring Denali, Talkeetna, and Fairbank ($3699/pp).
- Holland America: Holland America Cruise Tours offers dozens of Alaska tour options. When researching this article, it looked like they currently have 86 tours available in Alaska, ranging from $329/pp to $5659.
Smaller Cruise Ship Operators
If you are interested in a chiller, more nature-centered voyage featuring lectures, and kayak trips, Here is a list of smaller cruise operators offering a contrasting experience to their larger competitors.
- UnCruise Adventures: Offers 7, 12, and 14-day Alaska Adventure Cruises from April – September. Prices range from $3900-$9100/per person. This smaller cruise operator advertises “hiking, kayaking and paddle boarding, skiff rides, whale watching, northern lights viewing, jump into a polar plunge or learn about native Alaska cultures and tribes” PHONE: (888) 862-8881 WEBSITE: uncruise.com
- Lindblad Expeditions: Operating cruises in Alaska for forty years, Lindblad has expeditions ranging from six to 15 days. They have eight different itineraries with price ranges from $3600 to $9300. PHONE: (866) 394-1065 WEBSITE: expeditions.com
- Alaskan Dream Cruises: A family-owned and operated business based out of Sitka, Dream Cruises offers a range of multi-day expeditions on board boats with 76 guests or less capacity. Prices range from $2895-$8895/per person PHONE: (866) 695-71`47 WEBSITE: alaskandreamcruises.com
Jobs on Boats in Alaska
The maritime industry in Alaska is a large part of the state’s economy and offers plenty of employment opportunities. Much of the work is seasonal, but jobs are yearlong. These jobs are hard on the body and require ridiculously long work hours, but they can potentially pay quite well. Before seeking employment on a fishing boat, consider Commercial fishing is rated as one of the most hazardous occupations in America. Here are a few jobs you can get in Alaska working on a boat.
- Fish Processor
- Charter boat captain/fishing guide
- Marine Biologists and Observers
- Tour Guides and Naturalists
Want To Be Your Own Captain?
Has reading about Alaskan boats got you interested in heading north to have your maritime adventure? If so, Alaska offers plenty of boat rental options. Everything from Kayaks and canoes to chartered yachts. So, if you’re ready to start planning your Alaskan boat trip, check out this article that will help you find the right rental boat for you!
Alaska Boating Facts
- There are an estimated 29,400 Fishermen jobs in Alaska.
- Alaska is America’s top cruise destination, with an estimated 1.65 million cruise visitors in 2023.
- Alaska has over 3 million lakes and 12,000 rivers, plenty of opportunity for boating.
- Alaska has five species of salmon; King, Coho, Sockeye, Chum, and Pink.