Talking to an innovative ferry industry trailblazer

David Gudgel explains to Sandra Speares how Clipper Navigation has gone from strength to strength since becoming the first to operate a high-speed catamaran in North America 32 years ago

Talking to an innovative ferry industry trailblazer

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Spring/Summer 2019 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

In 1985, entrepreneur Merideth Tall saw the potential for a passenger-only catamaran service to operate year-round between Seattle, Washington and Victoria in British Columbia. She formed a partnership, incorporated the company Clipper Navigation, and contracted Norwegian firm Fjellstrand to construct the line’s first vessel, Victoria Clipper. When she entered service on 1 July 1986, Victoria Clipper became the first high-speed catamaran to ever operate in North America.

Thirty-two years later and Clipper Navigation, which was acquired by Germany’s Forde Reederei Seetouristik in 2016, continues to provide a year-round, fast, reliable daily service between Seattle and Victoria. The current vessel on the route is the newly acquired 545-passenger Victoria Clipper V, a 52-metre high-speed catamaran that was built by Fjellstrand and travels at speeds up to 36 knots.

“The vessel features two seating decks along with a ‘Comfort Class’ area that features leather seating in a private, spacious cabin offering complimentary snacks and beverages,” says David Gudgel, the company’s CEO.

Victoria Clipper V also has onboard eateries offering locally sourced goods, as well as an outside viewing deck and shops selling duty-free liquor, gifts and clothing.

“While Clipper’s primary audience is tourists, many Pacific Northwest locals make return trips each year due to the ease and convenience of the downtown-to-downtown service between Seattle and Victoria,” says Gudgel.

Clipper Navigation also operates a whale watching service, taking tourists on day trips from Seattle to Friday Harbour in the San Juan Islands between May and October each year.

“The service started in 1991 and currently operates on the 34-metre, 200-passenger San Juan Clipper,” comments Gudgel. “The vessel offers three viewing decks with inside and outside seating, as well as locally sourced food, beverages and a gift shop. The scenic day trip takes passengers under the historic Deception Pass and through the San Juan Island archipelago so they can observe a wide array of orca, humpback, minke and other whales and marine wildlife in an ethical and responsible manner. An expert naturalist is the star of each journey, educating passengers and answering questions about the sealife and local geography. Each whale watching day trip also includes a two-hour stopover in the picturesque seaside town of Friday Harbor.”

Operating in the Pacific Northwest has its own unique challenges, says Gudgel. “Weather is always a top concern for us as coastal weather patterns can frequently shift quickly across the Strait of Juan de Fuca,” he explains. “That being said, our Victoria Clipper V vessel is a very large, stable platform and we only had two weather cancellations in 2018. Another challenge we’ve faced in recent years has been a repeated pattern of wildfire smoke descending upon our region during late summer, which can impact consumer travel plans.”

However, Clipper Navigation has made significant efforts to overcome these challenges. “With the introduction of Victoria Clipper V into our fleet in March 2018, we were able to provide an improved level of service with 242 less sailings than our prior year of operation, resulting in far more efficiency along our primary Seattle to Victoria route,” says Gudgel. “The streamlined operation equates to less fuel consumption, as well as less waterway traffic in the Salish Sea.”

On the whale watching front, Clipper Navigation is working with its fellow members of the Pacific Whale Watching Association and Washington State to enact regulations to protect the region’s resident orcas. “The local orca pods are struggling due to a lack of Chinook salmon supply while their counterpart mammal-eating ‘Biggs’ orca whales are thriving in population, and there has been a surge in humpback whales in the area,” Gudgel remarks. “In 2019, we’re looking to introduce a Clipper Conservation Fee where a portion of each ticket sold on all of our routes will go directly to benefiting carefully vetted local non-profits that are focused on whale and sealife research, education and rehabilitation, as well as salmon restoration projects.”

The company is also working hard to keep its onboard and pier-side facilities fresh. Shoreside facilities in Seattle include the Clipper Café, which offers a robust breakfast and lunch menu of locally sourced items that are freshly prepared each day. The café also prepares the core menu items for the vessels. “The terminals are also in the heart of downtown Seattle and Victoria, giving passengers the opportunity to quickly explore each city’s respective scenic waterfronts,” adds Gudgel.

According to Gudgel, the main draw of Clipper Navigation is that it offers unique products and services, and that it is a Pacific Northwest travel company with deep local expertise. For example, the company also provides vacation packages with a wide array of hotels and tours and it is a major supplier of Victoria and Seattle hotel rooms.

“Along with maintaining impeccable operational and safety standards, we take great pride in our longstanding partnerships, carefully vetting every hotel, tour and transportation partner we choose to add to our portfolio,” he comments. “In addition, our administrative, onboard and call agent staff all regularly study and experience our product to ensure that we provide customers with a seamless and memorable high-touch travel experience. In 2019, we’ll introduce our passengers to a new Vista class with upper deck access to complement our existing Economy and Comfort classes on Victoria Clipper V. In the latter half of the year, we’ll also be putting seat selection into place on the vessel.”

Although Seattle offers a rapidly changing cityscape and demographic, and the Victoria region is continually evolving, both offer old-world charm with a modern touch. This offers Clipper Navigation multiple opportunities to help visiting tourists navigate the best of the Pacific Northwest.

“We take great pride in continually developing new product offerings and innovative ways to make it as easy as possible to not only get around the region, but to experience it all through a local lens,” says Gudgel. “A personal favourite is our ‘Sea & Sky’ offering, where passengers can travel from Seattle to Victoria via Clipper Navigation’s ferry and then take a seaplane in the reverse direction. This year, we’ll be looking to develop some new product offerings up island on Vancouver Island.”

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By Guest
02 May 2019

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