High-speed Skana whisks travelers toward Alaska’s wildlife and pristine glaciers

Glaciers move slowly, but Skana moves fast. 

Equipped with an advanced adjustable hydrofoil, the 87-foot aluminum catamaran tour boat cruises at around 28 knots, excellent for whisking tourists from its home base in Seward, Alaska, and into an icy world of wildlife and glaciers.

Designed by Teknicraft of Auckland, New Zealand, and operated by Major Marine Tours, Skana can carry up to 150 passengers while burning less fuel than other vessels in the fleet. 

Colby Lawrence, the tour company’s chief operating officer, said one of its older boats uses about 450 gallons of marine diesel during a six-hour tour. Skana, by contrast, uses only about 350 gallons. 

“It’s significant, especially this year with fuel up here,” Lawrence said. “It’s been $5.65 (a gallon) most of the summer for marine diesel.” 

Propelling the boat are four Tier 3 Scania DI16 082M engines producing nearly 800 hp each, paired with four HamiltonJet HM422 waterjets.

Skana has a stadium-style viewing area on the bow.
Skana has a stadium-style viewing area on the bow.

The boat combines that hardware with features that make for a comfortable experience for its passengers. For instance, it has three decks for sightseeing, and the bow has “stadium seating,” with steps that rise toward the second deck for optimal wildlife viewing.

“We live in one of the most spectacular places in the world, in my opinion,” Lawrence said. He has traveled widely, and Alaska drew him in. He’s now been there for 23 years. 

“And here in Seward, we have the good fortune of being able to access the Kenai Fjords National Park, which is home to the Harding Icefield.” 

The National Park Service describes the icefield as “the source of at least 38 glaciers that flow over the land, sculpting as they go.” 

“So, our company gives tourists the opportunity to go out and see live active tidewater glaciers,” Lawrence said. “And in addition, we see humpback whales, orcas, fin whales, sei whales. We just have a huge variety of wildlife that we get to see while we’re here out on the cruises anywhere from four hours to eight-and-a-half hours long.” 

The vessel’s main cabin is packed with amenities to keep passengers comfortable and happy.
The vessel’s main cabin is packed with amenities to keep passengers comfortable and happy.

Major Marine Tours was created by Russ Mager and Kathy Mager, who pronounced their name like “Major.” They came to the area around the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. The couple brought a boat to Alaska from Washington to help with the oil spill. Ultimately, they fell in love with the place, stayed permanently and then started doing tours, Lawrence said.

In 2007, a tour company led by Tom Tougas acquired Major Marine Tours’ Seward operations. At the time, it had three boats: two boats based in Seward, one based in another nearby port, Whittier. Eventually, the company shut down the Whittier operation and grew the Seward operation from two boats to nine boats currently.

The 2019 season was one of the best the tour company had ever seen. That fall, Major Marine Tours ordered two new tour boats from shipbuilder All American Marine of Bellingham, Wash. Then in March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, dealing a massive blow to the Alaska tourism business. 

As customers cancelled trips, Major Marine Tours was forced to refund more than $2 million, Lawrence said.

Leaders with Major Marine Tours discussed the situation with the shipbuilder. The tour company decided to cancel one of the two boats, but asked the shipbuilder to go ahead and build the other one.

The wheelhouse has advanced Furuno navigation electronics and HamiltonJet controls.
The wheelhouse has advanced Furuno navigation electronics and HamiltonJet controls.

“Even though Covid was really bad for our company, we decided to go ahead with the one boat because All American Marine had already started cutting the metal,” Lawrence said. “And if we had canceled our project with them, it very easily could have caused them to shut down their entire operation, at least momentarily.” 

He said the tour company had enough money to pay for the new boat. 

“So we went forward with it, which turned into a great relationship and partnership, I think, with All American Marine just keeping their doors open and giving us something to look forward to during the Covid crisis that we had.”

All American delivered that first new tour boat, Spirit of Matushka, in time for the 2021 tourist season, when the tourism business rebounded dramatically. Based on that growth, Major Marine Tours authorized All American to build Skana, which cost about $5.6 million.

“And we were able to make a couple of fine-tune changes to the boat, after having had one here all summer to run and test,” Lawrence said. 

And timing of the boat’s delivery was crucial. Major Marine Tours runs tours from early March through mid-October. But the peak season is in the middle of that, from mid-May through mid-September. Despite supply chain problems and other challenges, All American delivered Skana in early May, in time for the 2022 peak season. 

“If we didn’t have that boat here when it was supposed to be, we would have lost out on a lot of revenue,” Lawrence said. 

Spirit of Matushka and Skana are both named after beloved individual orcas that are frequently spotted in the area. Both boats were designed by Nic de Waal of Teknicraft Design of New Zealand.

Both are catamarans, and both incorporate some of the design company’s signature features, including a bow wave piercer. 

“To a tourist coming out on our boats, when they’re parked side by side, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference except the letters on the side,” Lawrence said. 

Both boats are equipped with a hydrofoil. Ron Wille, president and chief operating officer of the shipbuilder, says the hydrofoil plays a key role in the boats’ performance. 

Two Scania engines are installed in each catamaran hull.
Two Scania engines are installed in each catamaran hull.

“Basically it is a wing but it spans the distance between hulls,” he said. “And when you run at speed, it functions as a wing that provides lift. It will lift up to one-third of the boat further out of the water.

“That means there is a third less resistance on the hull,” Wille continued. “Now you are able to go faster without burning more fuel.” 

There are a few key differences between Spirit of Matushka and Skana. 

On Spirit of Matushka, the hydrofoil is fixed in place. On Skana, the hydrofoil position is adjustable. The captain can change the angle of attack through controls in the wheelhouse. 

For instance, in rough water, the captain can set the bow lower to improve the ride for the passengers, Lawrence said. The captain also can adjust the foil based on weight fluctuations as passenger loads change. 

“It is relatively novel,” Wille said. “This is about the fourth or fifth boat we have built where we an adjustable hydrofoil. I think we are one of the few — if not one of the only — companies that has taken it to a new level by allowing folks to implement an adjustable foil.”

Small adjustments to the hydrofoil have very positive effects on fuel burn, he added. 

Lawrence said, “It’s definitely the captains’ favorite boat that we have right now.” 

Major Marine has 13 captains who move around from boat to boat. The two captains who spend the most time piloting Skana are Laura Portscheller and Cody Lawrence’s wife, Nicole Lawrence.

Skana is designed for a comfortable tour, even in a freezing climate. One example is the robust heating system that ensures a steady supply of hot water for guests. The system is temperature-sensitive so it’s not running all the time, Lawrence said. 

With the peak 2022 tourist season now over, company leaders plan to put Skana back into action beginning in March 2023, and tourists will once again see the sights from its stadium-seating bow and its multiple decks.

“That’s what people come here for, to look at the wildlife and the glaciers,” Lawrence said. “And All American and Teknicraft have created a great end product for us that our passengers absolutely love.”