Boat Review: Salish Voyager
Small Craft Advisor|January - February 2021
Gig Harbor Boat Works releases a new design aimed toward adventure

While most fields advance and improve—whether at Moore’s Law speed or at a more plodding pace—one could argue architecture reached its peak hundreds or even thousands of years ago. How many contemporary structures rival St. Mark’s Cathedral, the Acropolis of Athens, or the Taj Mahal, for example? Or just compare the older, ornate, useful buildings in any downtown to the featureless, unpleasant, inhospitable more modern ones. As a critic once put it, “It’s as if some unseen person or force seems committed to replacing literally every attractive and appealing thing with an ugly and unpleasant thing.”

While small boat design and development has undoubtedly advanced a great deal—from the science of foils and sail shape to better modern materials and building techniques—one could argue that, as with architecture, designers have mostly failed to improve the form. Which contemporary lines represent an improvement on the Sea Bright skiff or L. Francis’s canoe yawl Rozinante? Which modern designs better serve the intended purposes of the peapod, canoe, or scow schooner? And just like with architecture—especially during the peak “Clorox-bottle boat” years—it has often seemed as if some force was committed to replacing every attractive vessel with an unpleasant thing.

Gig Harbor Boat Works founder and chief designer, Dave Robertson, has never been especially interested in designing something entirely new. Instead he’s looked to match or blend classic designs and concepts to modern uses, construction, and materials.

“Boats designed during the days of working sail have an elegance, a purity of form” he says. “In many cases a man needing a boat for a specific task would build a boat and then after using it would tweak things here and there— keel shape, freeboard, chines. Eventually, a hull form evolved that worked so well his friends wanted one just like it. It became a classic not because it was pretty, but because it worked. The shapes of those craft are so hydrodynamically ideal they should be left alone. We like to think we’re continuing the evolution of those craft by respecting their design integrity while updating them to meet the desires of watermen today.”

One look at the Gig Harbor Boat Works line (Whitehall, Melonseed, Maine Lobster Boat, etc) is all the evidence you need that they appreciate traditional designs and forms. However, Gig Harbor has also become well known for one particular modern adaptation— their sliding seat rowing systems, which have been used by serious rowers the world over, including some ocean-crossing record-holders. As adventure races and cruises like the R2AK, Seventy48, and Salish 100 have become more popular, customers have been requesting a capable sail-and-oar open boat that sails well but can also accommodate two sliding-seat rowers.

“Our decision to build the Salish Voyager resulted from many requests from customers who desired a vessel with expedition capacity that was a true sailboat and no-compromise solo or tandem slide-seat rowboat,” Roberston says. “The Voyager sails like a razor through velvet and rowing is smooth and powerful. Time will tell if we have built another ‘classic,’ but I think we’re close.”

To achieve their objectives they knew they’d need a fairly long boat and one with a slippery hull. As it turns out, part of the solution was right in front of them in the form of an existing design—their 17-foot Jersey Skiff. The rig would have to change, as the Jersey Skiff ’s sloop-rigged mast is too far aft and intrusive, but Gig Harbor had another almost off-the-shelf solution with the balanced lug rig used on their fiberglass SCAMP.

Next it was time to address other adventure-boat priorities like ballast, flotation, and dry stowage. Robertson credits longtime shop manager, Falk Bock, with most of the Voyager’s design elements.

“I helped with the rig and sail balance,” Dave told us, “but I mostly got out of his way and let him design this boat the way he wanted.”

With plenty of hard-won experience in the role of “crash test dummy” with the various Gig Harbor boats—from capsize testing to attempting beach launches in breaking surf—Falk was determined to make the new Salish Voyager as seaworthy and capable as possible, with features like seven discrete lockers, loads of sealed flotation, and a self-bailing (venturi bailer) bilge well aft.

As adventure-boat aficionados, we were excited for the chance to go play with the new Salish Voyager when they dropped it off with us for a week here in Port Townsend.

PERFORMANCE: Our first outing in the Voyager was almost a bust—at least in terms of sailing—as the predicted breeze never showed and we were left adrift in silvery fog. It was a good chance to try the rowing though, and the sleek Voyager didn’t disappoint. With only a single rower pulling, the lapstrake hull slipped along and carried well.

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