Fishermen's News - The Advocate for the Commercial Fisherman

Developing a Prince William Sound Bowpicker


A new 32-foot bowpicker from Barbary Cove, seen here undergoing sea trials, was designed to meet the challenging criteria of the Cordova, Alaska fishing fleet. Photo courtesy of Barbary Cove.

Finn the Fisherman has been working hard. He had a busy, but productive, season. He’s been performing maintenance on his boats and nets and supervising some minor upgrades to his boat. After months of hard work, Finn thinks to himself, “I deserve a day off!”

Finn decides to visit a local boat builder to see what is going on, and heads to Sedro-Woolley to visit Barbary Cove. As he pulls up to the shop, Finn notices the overhead door is open and he observes the activity of boatbuilding.

Finn walks into the shop, noticing a new 32-foot bowpicker sitting on a trailer. He asks one of the workers, “Where is the owner?” Just then, Jim Bower, the owner of Barbary Cove emerges from his office and greets Finn, “Hello Finn! It sure is good to see you. How long has it been? Seems like forever!” Finn grins and responds, “Well Jim, it has been a while. Not forever – more like 6 months. I’ve been busy with fishing and boat maintenance.” Jim shakes his head and notes, “Knowing you Finn, you are probably spending most of your time carrying money to the bank or investing. You see, I talked with Larry Lawless, your lawyer, and he told me all about your big profits from fishing.”

Finn laughs and notes, “Larry does like to exaggerate. Larry is the one with the big bucks, not me. Tell me, Jim, what have you been up to?”

Jim responds, “I’ve been very busy this last year. About a year ago, I decided to research the bowpicker market and develop a new bowpicker to sell in Cordova, Alaska.” Jim invites Finn into his office, they both sit down, and Jim begins talking:


As a boat builder, I’m always looking for market opportunities. After building aluminum commercial vessels, primarily landing crafts, for the last five years, and talking with a boat broker friend in Alaska, I learned there could be a business opportunity to build bow pickers for the fleet in Cordova, Alaska.

I flew to Cordova and spent about a week talking with the fishermen and looking at their vessels. This was a good experience. I learned a lot. It is always good to talk with the end user and find out what they want in a boat.

I looked at used bowpickers that are on the market. There are usually a few late model aluminum boats. These vessels represent the latest thinking in bowpicker design and build. However, I learned there is a large selection of older used vessels. They range from 10 to 30 years of age. Many of these boats have fiberglass hulls and cabins and they seem to range in size from about 27 feet to 30 feet. The most popular power for the older vessels was either single or twin gas engines with inboard-outboard drives.

In addition to the used market, I reviewed the current offerings by a number of respected builders. The hulls and cabins are available in aluminum or fiberglass, with aluminum appearing to be the more popular choice. The current builds tend to be approximately 32 feet long with an 11-foot to 12-foot beam.

I learned fishermen have different opinions about the size and weight of their vessels. One group advocates a slightly smaller vessel that has placed a high emphasis on weight reduction. They believe a lightweight vessel will be more fuel-efficient and, therefore, more profitable to operate. One builder builds a very substantial and relatively large vessel. This vessel is strongly constructed, has a wide beam, and lots of freeboard. It has an excellent reputation for being able to continue to safely fish when the weather turns nasty. Another builder has developed a boat that is very popular. He has come very close to designing and building a boat that appears to meet most of the expectations of many fishermen.

My research into the history of design evolution leads me to the conclusion that bowpickers have evolved over the years into a very well thought out vessel that is nearly ideal for its mission. The obvious question was, “Can I improve the breed with better design?”


Many of the current builders of bowpickers have developed their boats based upon experience, past successes and failures, and a good deal of hope and/or luck. It is not uncommon for builders to design their boats on the proverbial back of an envelope. I felt there was an opportunity to bring the substantial knowledge and experience of naval architecture to bowpicker design. This is not to discount the experience and lessons gained from many years, but to combine this experience and knowledge with the scientific skills of a trained naval architect.

I spent a number of months working on the design of bowpickers. One of the most critical elements of good design is an accurate weight analysis. In talking with the fishermen, most of them seem to have little idea of how much their boats weigh when they leave the dock. By carefully looking at the hull design and the draft, I could easily calculate that the average bowpicker, with gas engines, weighed about 14,000 pounds as it leaves the dock. This weight includes nets, fishing gear, fuel, water, hydraulic fluids, safety gear, personal belongings, and crew. Of course, there are some boats that weigh less and some that weigh more, but the more popular brands that appear to have successfully hit the “sweet spot” weigh about 14,000 pounds.

Diesel engines are popular with many fishermen due to better fuel economy and the perception of greater safety and reliability. However, diesel engines weigh considerably more than a gas engine and most diesel engines require a reduction gear to properly work with a jet drive. In addition to the heavier weight of the engines and gearbox, diesel engines usually require a larger jet, further adding to the weight difference. Based on these observations, I concluded the average bowpicker with diesel engines will weigh about 16,000 pounds as it leaves the dock.

Based on weight analysis, I concluded proper design of a vessel needs to adjust the vessel size to the estimated weight. In naval architecture, there is a concept known as “bottom loading.” Bottom loading is a calculation of the weight per square foot of planing surface of the hull, or the hull bottom. If the bottom is too lightly loaded, the vessel will exhibit poor handling and may become dangerous to operate. If the bottom is too heavily loaded, the vessel will not get up on plane and will exhibit sluggish performance. Bottom loading is critical to the design of a planing hull vessel.

Recognizing the importance of bottom loading, I used a computer program developed by Lou Codega and Donald Blount, two highly regarded naval architects of high speed planing hull design, to design hulls with proper bottom loading. Based on my analysis, I concluded a diesel powered bowpicker should be approximately 33 feet long with a 10½-foot chine beam, and a gas powered bowpicker should be approximately 31½ feet long with a 9½-foot chine beam.

Based on bottom loading analysis, I designed two hulls, one for gas power and one for diesel power. To the best of my knowledge, I am the only builder to differentiate the hull designs based on power options.

Professional Design

After several months of research and preliminary design, I turned to a professional designer to assist me with this project. I selected Steve Pollard of Specialty Marine located in Scappoose, Oregon. I’ve worked with Steve for years and have built a number of his designs. Steve is a competent designer who is well trained in naval architecture and has a commitment for designing and building a structurally strong hull. In addition, Steve had completed the design of another bowpicker recently and had a good feel for what the fishermen wants and needs. In addition to the above considerations, Steve uses computer-aided design and can provide a cut file for computer cutting of all the component aluminum parts of the hull, deck, and cabin.

Computer design and cutting has numerous advantages. Computer design allows us to design a hull with a perfectly developed surface, making the bottom and sides relatively easy to form on the boat’s framing. Computer design allows us to conduct hydrostatic calculations with great accuracy and ease. And, finally, computer design produces a cut file that allows us to precut all of our aluminum, greatly increasing accuracy of the assembly process and reducing shop hours. Bottom line, a computer designed and cut hull is far superior to a hand lofted and cut hull. The fisherman will have a superior product for little, if any, increase in cost.

Steve Pollard has a reputation for designing strong hulls. Our bowpickers are no exception. We have transverse frames spaced 30 inches and two girders running the full length of the forward bilge and fishholds. The frames and girders extend from the hull bottom to the underside of the deck, resulting in a very strong but relatively lightweight hull. We fully expect our hulls to easily have a life expectancy of 40 years or more.

We also design our hulls with numerous watertight bulkheads. We incorporate a crash bulkhead in the bow, a watertight bulkhead at the forward end of the fishholds and another at the aft end of the fish holds. By designing a hull with 4 watertight compartments, the potential for flooding and sinking is greatly reduced.

Cabin Design

Based on discussions with fishermen, we noted a desire for a slightly larger cabin. With this in mind, we designed a longer cabin to create more room. Many vessels place the head compartment in the aft starboard corner of the cabin, thus restricting the view aft. We placed the head compartment behind the helm station, resulting in a minimal obstruction looking aft.

We gave care to the design of sight lines from the helm station. Unlike almost all builders, we added windows to the recessed area for the cabin entry door. This feature costs little but adds substantially to sight lines and operator safety. We also placed an oversized window on the aft bulkhead for improved aft visibility.

A small but important touch is to leave room behind the helm station so a fisherman can add cabin heat. Many fishermen prefer a small diesel heater and we have provided a perfect location.

We designed extra wide upper and lower bunks so the fishermen will enjoy their sleeping time. We cover dual density foam with Sunbrella fabric, both for the longevity and for occupant’s comfort.

Knowing the importance of adequate electrical power, we incorporated a large inverter aft of the galley and under the upper bunk. This will provide adequate power to run a microwave and/or power a computer. In addition to the inverter, we provide numerous 12-volt outlets around the cabin for the convenience of the fishermen.


The next step, after completing the design, was to build the boat. All boat builders know the first vessel built to a design is the most difficult vessel to build. There are many lessons to be learned on the first build, no matter how many boats you have previously built. As you go through the process of building the first vessel, you discover easier ways to complete certain tasks, therefore improving your build time on subsequent builds. You also encounter minor design errors that need to be corrected. As you assemble the parts, you think of new or different ways to begin and complete tasks, resulting in a better product with less build time.

We have not been immune from the learning curve associated with the first build. We placed the hull side on the port side with great difficulty. After thinking about our process, we took a different approach on the starboard side that proved to be much easier and faster. Due to the lack of accurate drawings from the engine supplier, the designer was only able to guess at the engine bed design. As we installed the engines, it became obvious we need to redesign the engine beds so the engines would properly fit into the hull.

Several more issues arose that called for rethinking the next boat. We did not have sufficient chases for electrical, water, and hydraulic lines running from the engine room to the forward bilge area. We added chases through the fish holds. We located the house batteries and fresh water tank in the forward bilge area to improve lateral weight distribution. Bowpickers, with engines and cabin aft, tend to be stern heavy and benefit from moving weight forward. As the engine room evolved, we added a storage area for tools and spare parts forward and outboard of the port engine.

During the build process, there are many decisions to be made. An important choice is material selection. Do you select the lower price component or the higher quality item? Our choice is to go with quality. Experience suggests quality pays in longer life and reduced maintenance. No fisherman can afford to lose fishing time due to equipment malfunction or breakdown.

Another area where we invested care is chafe protection. Boats move, and chafe will destroy electrical, water and hydraulic lines very quickly. We have exercised great care in protecting our lines. As an example, all of our electrical lines are encased in split loom for chafe protection. In addition, we make liberal use of hangers and ties to ensure the electrical lines will not move when the boat is under way.

In addition to chafe protection, we placed importance on access for maintenance. The engine room and forward bilge areas are designed with quick and easy access to all component parts. Not only does this make maintenance easier and cheaper, it actually promotes good maintenance practices, which are essential for reliable operation.

Many of the bowpickers will be trailered. Due to height restrictions, we designed and built a radar arch that is quickly removable. When trailering the vessel, the radar arch can be removed and placed on the reel or forward deck. We have eliminated worries associated with overhead collisions when trailering.

Trim Tabs

We originally purchased brand name off the shelf trim tabs. After inspecting them, we concluded they were not built strongly enough for the rigors of commercial fishing. We designed and built our own heavy-duty trim tabs. The tabs have been designed to allow the Hamilton Jets to reverse thrust without affecting the trim tabs.

We conducted extensive research into hydraulic cylinders to obtain quality cylinders that will last in an adverse environment. Many builders use an inexpensive lightweight cylinder that has a one-year life expectancy. We believe the fisherman would prefer to pay slightly more and have cylinders that will last multiple seasons.

Jet Guard and Ladder

We designed and built the jet guard to be strong and to provide protection to the jets. But, we went further. We incorporated a ladder to allow a fisherman to self-rescue in the event of falling overboard. In our research, we saw no boats designed with the ability of the fishermen to self-rescue should he fall overboard. To our way of thinking, this is an unacceptable hazard that needs to be addressed. If we can save one fisherman’s life, then our ladder has served its purpose.

Sea Trials

We completed our first sea trials last month, and they went very well. Most of our systems performed as expected and with no problems. We did encounter minor problems in the operation of one of the buckets on the Hamilton Jet. Hamilton dispatched a mechanic to assist us. The vanes on the hydraulic pump to operate the buckets tend to get a little sticky when sitting on the shelf. He sorted through that problem and quickly solved it.

Another issue we encountered was seaweed in the jet intake. We ingested seaweed as we crossed over a tidal area with substantial floating seaweed. We attempted to clear the intake grates and impeller but were not completely successful. When we returned to the dock and hauled out, we saw a fair amount of seaweed hanging from the intake grates. This is more of an operator error than design/build flaw. We should have throttled down and coasted over the weeds.

Final Punch List

Based on our sea trials and known items to complete, we have a week or two of work to complete and then we will conduct sea trials again. Based on the first sea trials, we are pleased with the performance of the vessel. On the second sea trials, we will have enough break-in hours on both engines so we can conduct runs to determine speed at different RPMs.

Finn’s Observations

The new boat has transverse frames spaced 30 inches and two girders running the full length of the forward bilge and fishholds, resulting in a very strong but relatively lightweight hull. Photo courtesy of Barbary Cove.

“Wow!” “I had no idea how much thought and work you had to put into the development of a new boat.” Finn continues, “What will you do to market your new creation?”

Jim sits back, smiles, and observes, “Marketing is our next challenge for this project. We will market directly to the fishermen in Cordova, we will list our first vessel with a broker in Cordova, and we will develop a website that educates the fishermen on the advantages of our vessels.” Jim continues, “After spending a year on this project, our next goal is to sell the first vessel and then get orders for additional vessel. We believe we have a superior product that should appeal to fishermen. It is designed to be a tough, reliable, and efficient machine that should help the fisherman catch lots of fish. And, as you know, Finn, catching lots of fish is the key to earning lots of money! And we want our fishermen friends to earn lots of money.”


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