CHAL­LENGE AC­CEPTED

There is no chal­lenge that pow­er­cat pi­o­neer and master mar­keter Larry Graf won’t tackle.

Passage Maker - - Contents - STORY & PHO­TOS JONATHAN COOPER

The Sea of Cortez with Larry Graf Jonathan Cooper

The poster art for the doc­u­men­tary film Un­der an Arc­tic Sky shim­mers with a blurry green light on a jet black sky, the sig­na­ture of the aurora bo­re­alis. A de­scrip­tion fol­lows: “A film project doc­u­ment­ing the jour­ney to the most remote cor­ner of Ice­land in the mid­dle of win­ter in search of per­fect surf.” I fig­ure it will ei­ther be great or it will put me to sleep on this cross-coun­try flight. A win ei­ther way.

I watch the whole thing. And this is the gist: Pro­fes­sional-surfer-dudes-turned-film­mak­ers de­cide that film­ing the epic waves of Maui’s North Shore is tired ma­te­rial, so they reach out to their com­rades around the globe in search of the next cra­zi­est place to surf. They set­tle on Ice­land, in the dead of win­ter, and end up film­ing dur­ing one of the worst storms in the na­tion’s recorded his­tory.

If I had to guess, I’d say 10% of the film was surf­ing-re­lated, 70% in­volved driv­ing Land Rovers in a snow-driven hur­ri­cane, and 20% was dudes look­ing ei­ther anx­ious or ex­cited about their prospects of sur­vival or surf­ing, re­spec­tively. But as I watched, feel­ing cold, I re­al­ized some­thing: Had the film’s di­rec­tor, Chris Burkard, not cho­sen somewhere so remote and for­saken, it is un­likely this film would have ever been made. As it turns out, surf­ing the fi­nal fron­tier is much more mar­ketable than shred­ding sunny Hunt­ing­ton Beach.

GREAT ES­CAPES

This fi­nal fron­tier is some­thing that Larry Graf—from Aspen Pow­er­cats (and Glacier Bay Pow­er­cats be­fore that)—knows all too well. I set­tle in for some back­ground re­search: A YouTube video is 27 min­utes long and ends with Larry and his son, Nick, spray­ing cham­pagne around like they just won Olympic gold. The video is from 2014 af­ter the fa­ther-son duo fin­ished the 640-some-mile non­stop cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of Van­cou­ver Is­land in what was then record time. The event, the in­au­gu­ral “Pa­cific Chal­lenge,” was spon­sored by Pa­cific Yacht­ing mag­a­zine. The ed­i­tors of the Bri­tish Columbia–based pub­li­ca­tion thought it would be en­joy­able to pit lo­cal builders against each other to see who could build the fastest yet most ef­fi­cient boats in the re­gion. A rough and ex­posed cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of Van­cou­ver Is­land would weed out any wannabes.

For those who don’t know him, Larry Graf is not one to turn down a chal­lenge. In fact, for decades he has been the one pre­sent­ing them, which makes me won­der if this whole event wasn’t his idea from the out­set. Nev­er­the­less, with their dark blue Aspen 32 out­fit­ted with a cus­tom alu­minum fuel tank in the cock­pit and a bevy of in­trigued spon­sors at their back, Larry and Nick made mince­meat of the com­pe­ti­tion. To­tal elapsed time: 47 hours, 5 min­utes. Fuel burned: 267 gal­lons (5.6 gal­lons per hour at an av­er­age speed of 13.6 knots). Sure, it could be done again. And it was done (even faster), but that’s not the point. Larry jumped on it, won it, and the tro­phy was Aspen’s to hoist high.

This wasn’t Larry’s first rodeo, not by miles. He’d been do­ing this, a thing loosely called “ad­ven­ture cruis­ing,” for nearly two decades, and he’s still at it. He does it for three rea­sons. One, he knows that the boats he builds— first with Glacier Bay and then with Aspen start­ing in 2007—per­form safely and ef­fi­ciently in a wide va­ri­ety of sea con­di­tions. Two, he clearly un­der­stands the value of unique pub­lic­ity. And three, he ab­so­lutely can­not help him­self.

Twenty-three years ago, Larry sought to prove that his boats could do any­thing the big boys could do. And to show the world what he meant, he set up chal­lenges that the boat­ing me­dia would de­vour. It wasn’t about be­ing a show­man; it was pure mar­ket­ing ge­nius.

In 1999, Larry an­swered a call from David Sei­d­man of Boat­ing mag­a­zine. Urged on by Tim McKercher at Sea-Doo, the world-fa­mous wa­ter­bike fab­ri­ca­tor, Sei­d­man had de­vised a hare­brained scheme to take jet skis across the Ber­ing Strait. They would de­part Nome, Alaska, and the plan was to make land­fall 180 miles away on the Rus­sian is­land of Diomede be­fore re­turn­ing to U.S. wa­ters. Since the is­land was too far for the Sea-Doos’ range, Larry was called in to as­sist with ex­tra fuel, sur­vival suits, elec­tron­ics, and, I sup­pose, morale. Larry was there at the ready, a photo shows him stand­ing on the bow of a 26-foot Glacier Bay, the boat snug up against a berg, with a film crew on hand to doc­u­ment the ad­ven­ture.

It’s no ac­ci­dent that Sei­d­man phoned Larry. On sev­eral pre­vi­ous well-pub­li­cized ven­tures, Larry had proven him­self to have an un­quench­able thirst for dan­ger. In 1995, he and a crewmem­ber es­tab­lished the record time for a non­stop trip from New York to Ber­muda. Three years later, he and a few col­leagues de­liv­ered two out­board-pow­ered 26-foot­ers from Hawaii to the Mid­way Atoll, stop­ping just once for fuel on the 1,328-mile trip.

ASPEN: A FAM­ILY AF­FAIR

In 2007, Larry left Glacier Bay to start up a new ven­ture, Aspen Pow­er­cats, with a new fac­tory in Burlington, Wash­ing­ton. Two years later, just as the econ­omy was show­ing signs of crash­ing, the Aspen team was in the midst of de­vel­op­ing tool­ing for their first proa cata­ma­ran mold. On my tour of the fa­cil­ity, Nick told me that oddly enough this tim­ing was just about per­fect: “By the time we had fin­ished the first boat, the econ­omy was re­cov­er­ing enough that we could build the next in line with­out too much worry.” And with that, Aspen was off and run­ning, start­ing with the 28 and 32, and mov­ing up to 40-foot­ers with the launch of

the suc­cess­ful C120 in 2016.

Like many small and medium-size boat­builders, Aspen is a fam­ily af­fair. Most like his dad in terms of gre­gar­i­ous­ness, Nick pri­mar­ily han­dles sales. But his brother Steve and their sis­ter, Chrissy, are also in­volved in day-to-day op­er­a­tions, han­dling mar­ket­ing and events, among other things. Even Chrissy’s hus­band, Bran­don Holmes, has joined the team to help on the man­u­fac­tur­ing side.

Hav­ing vis­ited the Aspen fac­tory, I can say that a tour is well worth it. Nick is a nat­u­ral tour guide, and as you would ex­pect, the yard is a re­flec­tion of its own­ers: busy, friendly, not stuffy or pre­ten­tious.

THE LAT­EST CHAL­LENGE

The most re­cent feather in the Grafs’ cap is the Aspen C120 Knot Waf­flen’, owned by David Jenk­ins, the ready-waf­fle mag­nate, and his wife, Sue Ellen, a nurse. When the cou­ple took de­liv­ery last sum­mer, in­stead of re­mov­ing the 40-footer’s hard­top to ship it by truck back to Mary­land, Larry per­suaded David and Sue Ellen to make an ad­ven­ture out of it. Sur­prised?

The “10,000-Mile Tour” was born, launched with a press con­fer­ence in Ana­cortes, Wash­ing­ton. We learned then that the boat, be­decked with spon­sor’s lo­gos and gel-coat glim­mer­ing in the sun, was set to em­bark on the fol­low­ing itin­er­ary: In­side Pas­sage to Alaska; re­trace back to Wash­ing­ton; off­shore on the Pa­cific and around the south­ern tip of the Baja Penin­sula; stay on the Sea of Cortez in La Paz’s Ma­rina Costa Baja for sev­eral months; cross, haul out, and re­move the hard­top for truck­ing; truck from Guay­mas, Mex­ico, to Galve­ston, Texas; re­in­stall the hard­top per­ma­nently, then cruise around Florida and up to Annapolis to ex­hibit at the Power­boat Show this Oc­to­ber. It is an au­da­cious itin­er­ary for the cou­ple, but par­tic­u­larly for David, who had no blue­wa­ter ex­pe­ri­ence prior to this trip off­shore. He en­gaged his brother-in-law, Blake Eder, to cap­tain the ves­sel and to be her care­taker while David and Sue Ellen are away. Larry is only a call away if there is a need to move the boat, troubleshoot, or in­vite mem­bers of the me­dia for a cruise, which is ex­actly why I flew to Baja in Novem­ber.

FOUR DAYS ON THE SEA OF CORTEZ

We started our mini-ad­ven­ture at San José del Cabo air­port at the south­ern tip of Baja Cal­i­for­nia Sur, about 40 miles east of Cabo San Lu­cas. Four of us—Larry, Nick, North­west Yacht­ing ed­i­tor Nor­ris Comer, and I—con­gre­gated at the Hertz rental cen­ter and stuffed our gear into a Dodge Du­rango in or­der to make the twohour drive to La Paz, the re­gion’s cap­i­tal city. From the air­port, the high­way sweeps west to­ward Cabo and then hugs the Pa­cific shore un­til the road bends north­east at To­dos San­tos, ef­fec­tively criss­cross­ing the penin­sula.

LA PAZ

The cap­i­tal city of La Paz served as our jump­ing-off point for cruis­ing to the north­ern is­lands, which in­clude Isla Espíritu Santo and Isla Par­tida. Al­though nav­i­gat­ing the maze of down­town streets by car wasn’t easy (lanes un­de­fined, stop­lights con­fus­ing), Google Maps helped us find the right turns and lo­cate gro­cery stores, restau­rants, and Wal­mart-type con­ve­nience/dis­count shops (where we pur­chased ne­ces­si­ties, like sleep­ing bags, cheap sun­glasses, and an in­flat­able plas­tic flamingo).

La Paz’s board­walk fol­lows a miles­long stretch of beach where wooden fish­ing skiffs bob on moor­ings or are left to crack and peel, sun­bathing on the beach a few years too long with “Se Vende” painted on their tran­soms. Fishermen sup­ply restau­rants with fresh shrimp for ce­viche, a lo­cal fa­vorite, and as­sorted white fish and oc­to­pus are com­mon on menus in well­re­garded restau­rants, such as El Toro Güero (4.5 stars on Trip Ad­vi­sor). Not to be missed on the walk are sev­eral mag­nif­i­cent bronze stat­ues, in­clud­ing an oft-pho­tographed scuba diver.

By the time we ar­rived, Knot Waf­flen’ had al­ready spent a few weeks in the re­gion. Af­ter sup­ply­ing the boat with fresh pro­duce and stow­ing ev­ery­thing that wasn’t ours, we headed up to one of the many restau­rants that sur­round Ma­rina Costa Baja. Over din­ner and cervezas we loosely es­tab­lished an itin­er­ary, know­ing that noth­ing was set in stone, and en­joyed the 80-de­gree De­cem­ber evening ac­com­pa­nied by a warm breeze brush­ing to us over land.

ISLAS BONITAS

The winds stayed calm, with the wildest breezes hit­ting barely 12 knots, and sea states were never more than a few feet of medium-pe­riod swell or light chop. The Aspen is more than adept; both Larry and Nick had the 32 in fren­zied seas on the ex­posed side of Van­cou­ver Is­land dur­ing the Pa­cific Chal­lenge. This trip wasn’t go­ing to be a prov­ing ground for what the Aspen can do. Still, we steered from the fly­bridge in fol­low­ing seas, but even as light as the waves were, you could sense the boat’s abil­ity to han­dle, as we let Knot Waf­flen’ re­main on course for over two miles with­out touch­ing the wheel. All this go­ing 17 knots and burn­ing a fairly mea­ger 12 gal­lons per hour.

We stopped first for beach­comb­ing on the white sand of Playa de la Bo­nanza, where it was a bo­nanza in­deed. We found the bones of some sort of mam­mal—there were ru­mors of sheep or goats on this is­land at one point—and a host of fierce-look­ing, snag­gle-toothed fish skele­tons. The seashells I picked up to bring home for my daugh­ter were so touched by beach ero­sion that they felt as smooth as pearls.

Larry flew his drone around un­til the gulls grew a lit­tle too in­quis­i­tive. (This is Larry’s third drone, but he’s def­i­nitely get­ting the hang of keep­ing it dry.) My other ship­mates snorkeled around in­spect­ing the sea life and get­ting their backs fried by the

noon­day sun. I walked around the is­land’s moon­scape ter­rain, and up to the sand dunes, tak­ing great care not to step on the spines of the dead but still sharp fish skele­tons.

SAN FRAN­CISCO BAY

Isla San Fran­cisco—about an hour’s run north from Isla Par­tida—was meant to be a di­ver­sion be­fore find­ing an­other an­chor­age for the night. But the postage-stamp is­land, shaped like a block with a gi­ant fish­hook stick­ing from it, was too dif­fi­cult to leave. In­side the arc of the bay, boats are pro­tected from norther­lies, though the breeze fun­nels over a nar­row isth­mus that di­vides the is­land’s two mini moun­tain ranges. In a south­west­erly blow, many of th­ese is­lands north of La Paz would be less than com­fort­able for overnight stays, though with enough scope, the an­chor­ages are gen­er­ally sandy and make for rel­a­tively se­cure hold­ing. A small cruise ship, a cou­ple and their golden re­triever on a Nord­havn down from Juneau, and a dozen sail­boats were an­chored with us overnight.

In the late af­ter­noon, Larry patched an in­flat­able pad­dle­board. In search of pho­to­graphs and a lit­tle ex­er­cise to work off the Coronas, Nick, Nor­ris, and I took the dinghy to shore and hiked up a trail that fol­lowed the south­ern rock face. Af­ter lunch (if you could call it that—at this point we had few supplies left other than peanut but­ter and jelly sand­wiches, tor­tilla chips, and our home­made pico de gallo), Larry and I took the drone to the beach for a lit­tle more flight time.

Un­doubt­edly, the high­light for me was waking in the wee hours of morn­ing to the dis­tinct sound of mam­mals breach­ing and blow­ing, frolicking in the shal­low bay. In the moon­light, I only caught glimpses from my state­room port­lights, so I climbed up and out into the cock­pit for a bet­ter view. I never saw one clearly enough to dash my hope that th­ese mid­night ma­raud­ers were vaquitas—the small­est por­poise-like crea­ture on the planet, soon to be ex­tinct—come to thank us for vis­it­ing their na­tive wa­ters.

RE­TURN

Af­ter four short days of boat­ing, snor­kel­ing, and fish­ing, we left Baja be­hind and be­gan the 2,300-mile flight back to the Pa­cific North­west. From 10,000 feet, look­ing down to where the desert land­scape slides into the Pa­cific on one side and the gulf on the other, it was easy to un­der­stand Larry’s pen­chant for ar­rang­ing th­ese types of trips. I wouldn’t be sur­prised to hear that he is busy con­coct­ing an­other pil­grim­age, per­haps to some far-off land he’s only ever dreamed of vis­it­ing. Per­haps he wants to see if his boats can han­dle the surf out­side Reyk­javík, in the dead of win­ter.

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Op­po­site Top: Nick takes a mo­ment to dive into the set­ting sun. Bot­tom: Nor­ris, Larry, and Nick (left-to-right) in­spect­ing an an­chor­age for the se­cond night at Isla Par­tida. This Page: Nick, at the helm, and Larry, in the fore­ground, on the fly­bridge....

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