Minutes after U.S. Airways Flight 1549 crashed into the Hudson River in January 2009, boats from the U.S. Coast Guard and New York ferry system surrounded the plane, plucking all 155 aboard to safety. Although it happened thousands of miles from Alaska, it was Alaskan ingenuity that played a role in the success of the rescues.
About half of the boats involved in the rescue were designed and built in Sitka, by Allen Marine Inc. The fast, highly maneuverable ferries were built specifically for New York Waterways, which carries 35,000 passengers daily across New York’s congested rivers and harbors. Their design showcases Allen Marine’s specialty, which is designing and building boats to meet the specific demands of their owners. Over its 40-year history, Allen Marine has built one-of-a-kind boats for tourism in Southeast, commuters in crowded cities, ocean-based petroleum exploration and to ferry workers to remote job sites.
In the process, the family owned company has pioneered many improvements in Alaska water travel, such as a four-engine/four-jet catamaran that ferried workers to Greens Creek Mine three times a day for 10 years without missing a trip. It builds structural components such as bridges, ramps and floats. Allen Marine recently designed and built a custom shallow-draught floating drydock that can be towed to areas in rural Alaska lacking drydock facilities, creating the potential for new jobs and industries in remote regions.
“He’s probably built more boats in Alaska than anyone,” John Litten, owner of Sitka Tours said of company founder Bob Allen. “There is an incredible difference in styles, from riverboats they can bolt together and go up rivers to the catamarans in New York.”
The family owned company, started by Bob and Betty Allen in 1967, is powered by Bob Allen’s favorite saying, “Just because it hasn’t been done before, doesn’t mean we can’t do it.”
Allen had no formal engineering training, but he was an experienced boat operator and was very observant, Litten said.
“He’s always had ideas,” Litten said. Allen first used wooden boats bought from Seattle to take tourists on trips to Silver Bay, but constantly talked about building a big boat that would be more comfortable for tourists and offer better wildlife viewing opportunities.
Litten said Allen took the original plans for a wooden boat and modified them to meet his exacting specifications, with wider passageways and bubble windows so passengers could see up as well as out. The St. Maria, built in 1985, was made of steel, although Allen then switched to aluminum. The company has built more than 50 boats since then.
The company says the 19 vessels it sold to the New York ferry company are “the largest single export of manufactured products in the history of the 49th state.”
“It’s absolutely tremendous what, as a family, they’ve accomplished,” Litten said.
Locally, Allen family’s impact on Sitka has been “huge,” said longtime friend Fred Reeder, who works for Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska. He also credits the Allens as the pioneers of modern tourism in Sitka.
“He started with just one boat 40 years ago and has grown it into a huge business,” Reed said.
Allen Marine was born out of disaster. The family was living in Kodiak when the 1964 Good Friday earthquake struck, said Jamey Cagle, vice president of Allen Marine and grandson of Bob and Betty Allen.
Allen was a fisherman and his boat was anchored on the far side of the island when word came over the radio of the quake and tsunami warning. After the danger was over, he headed back to Kodiak, picking up survivors as well as the bodies of some who didn’t make it. His family was fine, but the tsunami had devastated the fishing industry. In the meantime, Allen, who in earlier years had helped build rural air stations and had experience working with heavy equipment, bid on and received a contract to salvage underwater telegraph cables around Kodiak.
“By himself, he was able to design equipment to pull up submerged cable,” Cagle said, adding that Allen would pull up two or three miles of cable at a time, working alone. “He built a smelter and was able to smelt out the metal, mostly zinc, and was able to sell that off and got seed money for the family to relocate to Southeast Alaska.”
Sitka & Tourism
The return was a homecoming for Betty Allen, a Tlingit from Juneau. The Allens settled in Sitka, where they bought an existing boat repair shipyard and started servicing local vessels, mostly fishing vessels and pleasure craft, as well as chip barges for the nearby pulp mill. Allen kept his eyes open for other opportunities.
Although tourists had been traveling to Alaska for nearly a century, the cruise ship industry was still in its infancy. Sitka is a deep-anchor port, Cagle said, which meant ships had to anchor out in the harbor and send the passengers ashore in small boats.
Allen approached the cruise ships and offered to take over the shuttle service. He took out a piece of dock to help the passengers disembark more comfortably and then took them ashore.
“They got efficient at it,” Cagle said, but at the time there wasn’t a lot for tourists to do ashore in Sitka. So Allen asked the cruise ship if they would offer passengers the opportunity to go on his family’s guided wildlife tour.
The family had started doing tours after Bob Allen heard about a boat for sale that had been damaged when the tide went out at its anchorage and a submerged piling punched a hole in it. Allen bought the boat from the insurance company at a discounted rate, hauled it back to Sitka, repaired it and started doing wildlife tours of Silver Bay for independent travelers. The tour was a family affair, with all five kids pitching in.
The tours were a success, and Allen Marine expanded its operations even as it continued serving other vessels at its 400-ton steel drydock. By the mid-80s, Bob Allen decided he needed a new boat and started the company’s shipbuilding arm. At first, most of the boats were built to serve Allen Marine’s rapidly growing tourism business.
In 1986-87, Allen Marine started building the catamarans the company is known for today. The first was the 78-foot M/V St. John, powered by a pair of diesel engines and waterjets. The following year, Allen Marine won a contract to ferry workers from Juneau to the Greens Creek mine on Admiralty Island.
Under the contract, the ferry had to maintain a minimum speed, Cagle said. Allen built a 105-foot aluminum catamaran called the Alaskan Dream.
“It was the first in the world with four engines and four waterjets,” Cagle said, and Allen went with waterjet systems on his catamarans for very specific reasons. “Bob was a commercial crabber. He was also around the logging industry. A lot of the trips to the mine would be in the dark, especially in the winter. He didn’t want to worry about hitting a log or sucking up a crab pot and shutting the engines down.”
The focus on speed and reliability was also behind the decision to use the unprecedented system of four independent propulsion systems on the Alaskan Dream. Three engines were enough to meet the minimum speeds, so the fourth was a spare. Allen also bought a fifth engine so he could change one out on the run if necessary.
“We operated Greens Creek for 10 years,” Cagle said. “The only trip it missed was due to a storm that wiped out the dock on Admiralty Island. The boat made it, but the dock was gone.”
That attention to detail is behind the company’s success in engineering ways to handle the sometimes unique needs of people for whom Allen Marine builds boats, including its own tourism business, which today employs more than 300 people and covers Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound.
“You could see the evolution of our boats from year to year,” Cagle said. “We learned a lot. A lot of the guys who built the boats also operated them during the summer,” which gave Allen Marine direct feedback on what worked and what didn’t. And what worked for Allen Marine also could be applied to the needs of other customers.
In addition to the New York ferry company, Allen Marine has also built a boat for the National Park Service for rangers at its Brooks Camp and an all-aluminum landing craft for the California Park Service at Angel Island in San Francisco, among others. Like many of its other products, the floating drydock was built because it met a need that Allen Marine itself had. “We didn’t have the facilities to haul out our own vessels,” Cagle said. “The drydock was built to meet our needs as well as meet the needs for other vessels in this region.”
This article originally appeared in the BUILDING ALASKA Special Section of the November 2011 print issue of Alaska Business Monthly