Adventures in Alaska

From watching bears to picnicking on a glacier, the owner of Ocean Dreamwalker III tells Charlotte Hogarth-Jones about his awe-inspiring exploits in a frozen paradise

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OCEAN DREAMWALKER III

Length 47.2m | Builder Sanlorenzo | Model 500 Exp | Cabins 5 | Exterior and interior designer Francesco Paszkowski | Top speed 15 knots

She’s known as a yacht that rarely spends more than a single night in a marina, so it’s no surprise that while others hunkered down amid the uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic, the owner of 47-metre Sanlorenzo Ocean Dreamwalker III had other plans. Having been to Alaska before, sightseeing and taking flights over the national parks, he was keen to try out his yacht – one of a number he owns, but the first designed with exploration in mind – and to gain a new perspective of this stunning area from the water. The boat’s captain helped devise an itinerary, with valuable input from another captain, Sean Meagher, who is particularly experienced in exploring this part of the world and had been in the same area just two weeks before.

Setting off from the city of Ketchikan in mid-August, the eight-day trip took in Anan Bay and its famous Bear and Wildlife Observatory, Wrangell (where guests played golf), Petersburg, the Steamboat Bay Anchorage (Frederick Sound), Tracy Arm, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Juneau and the Baranof Warm Springs. “The whole place is just spectacular,” enthuses the owner.

Of course, wildlife was a key draw throughout the trip. “Being on the boat enabled us to go into really remote regions in the national parks – we were in wild animal world,” he explains. As well as enjoying the Alaskan hot springs in the woods and walks on land, the group was lucky enough to catch sight of a group of bears fishing for wild salmon.

“The pictures I took were like something from a nature documentary,” he says with amazement.

“You can see the bears standing in the middle of the stream and snapping at the salmon in the air with the other bears around. It’s so natural.”

At Frederick Sound, meanwhile, guests sipped sundowners on the tender with whales less than a metre away. “There were so many whales around, with no other boats, and I could see the mountains covered with ice, and the sun shining through the mist, and the water was so flat and peaceful. The whales were just popping up everywhere and spouting water and flicking their beautiful tails and bodies in the sky. You just don’t know what word to use to describe a scene that beautiful,” he says.

In the national parks, the tracks of bears, deer and elk were visible, while “thousands of beautiful birds”, seals and dolphins were often right by the boat. One feature of the master suite made for a particularly surreal experience. At the touch of a button, a private balcony folds down. “I remember one morning, I woke up, and it was beautiful sunlight out, and not far away was this tall ice cap,” says the owner. “I opened the balcony and was enjoying a mimosa and a little breakfast, and then right in front of me there were whales swimming all around – black and white killer whales, different from the humpbacks we’d seen the day before. It was like waking from one dream and walking straight into another.”

Glaciers too, made for fascinating viewing, and owners and guests often took a stand-up jet ski, canoe or the yacht’s onboard Airbus H125 helicopter (which is operated by HSML) out to explore. “On one occasion, we set up a picnic for the owner on a big iceberg,” says the captain.

“We had a very low profile so it was safe enough, and we took all the seats and tables across and did a hotpot on there. There was a stunning view of the whole glacier. It was idyllic.” The owner, meanwhile, enjoyed admiring rivers of melted glacier ice running beneath the surface, and was delighted to enjoy his favourite whisky – a limited-edition Johnnie Walker that he’d bought a few bottles of in Iceland previously – served over freshly carved glacier ice.

“Going up Tracy Arm was the most challenging part,” says the captain with regard to navigation.
“It requires your full attention, as there’s a lot of ice around due to the calving of the glaciers, and you end up weaving between it for hours.” Forward-looking infrared (FLIR) thermal-imaging cameras were the only additional kit that was taken on board for the voyage. “It definitely helped us during low-light conditions, especially when the sun was against you. It assisted with picking up floating ice that was low in the water,” he says. All moving was done during daylight hours as a safety precaution, though “the only thing that really works is just having another pair of eyes on the bridge”, he says. “The fact is that people wanted to be there. Even when crew were meant to be going on breaks, they didn’t want to miss anything.”

Sometimes, says the owner, you could hear the sound of falling ice from nearby glaciers, and see the resulting waves. “Certainly, you get nervous,” he says, “but the risk isn’t life-threatening – and that’s exactly what exploration is all about.” At one stage, Ocean Dreamwalker III was able to go right up to a waterfall by a large glacier. “That was quite a unique position to be in,” says the captain. “The boss opened a bottle of champagne on the bow and everyone took photos with the waterfall behind them. It was completely safe, and I was, like, ‘Wow… not many vessels do that.’” Both the captain and the owner agree that having the helicopter on board really expanded the possibilities for the trip. Often, the owner and his guests would explore using the heli while the yacht moved to another location. “We’d fly to a lake, and then see a waterfall and fly there, and then see another lake and fly to that, and then see a waterfall…” the owner says with a laugh. “These big white glaciers – they’re just so beautiful. It’s like something you only see in the movies.”

On another occasion, the owner – a keen golfer – set off for a round of golf on Alaska’s only golf course at Wrangell. “It’s a nine-hole course, but you can play 18 holes by doing a second round, which we did,” he explains. “Uniquely, because it’s such cold weather, they don’t have grass on the green – it’s man-made!” he laughs. “I’ve been playing golf for years and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen that, but it was so beautiful.” Other facilities on board the yacht enhanced the experience – often, guests would enjoy exploring the ice before returning to the yacht’s spa pool. “I had a lot of family friends with me and often we’d be swimming in the pool, drinking whisky, facing this giant 200-metre glacier,” he recalls. The owner also enjoyed exercising in the gym under the helideck, and using its steam room, although often they would bring some of the Technogym machines out on deck. “I could exercise with whales swimming around me,” he explains, “because the gym has a balcony that extends towards the water.”

Did Covid-19 disrupt the owner’s plans? “Well, the original plan was to go up to Greenland and do the Northwest Passage from east to west before Alaska, but because of the Canadian borders being closed, that didn’t happen,” explains the captain. “I was quite happy about that, because it’s been a nice stepping stone to see how the vessel operated in those sorts of conditions – we’ll now depart for Antarctica in mid-December.”

While cruising Alaska, Ocean Dreamwalker III encountered only four other yachts, and only one motor yacht. For now, the owner is content with his boat. “It took me 15 design meetings, each one three to four days long to finalise all the features of this boat with Sanlorenzo, so I’ve put a lot of time into it,” he says. “I already have everything I want in it, with the option to add a submarine or an ATV or a hybrid jet ski on the reinforced deck, so right now I’m just in love with the whole experience.”

Antarctica will be another adventure of a similar ilk. He wants to take some of the younger generation on board, he explains, and as before, crew will be encouraged to join in. “You just want everybody to appreciate how beautiful our planet is,” he says, “and how amazing these extreme destinations are.”