Fishermen's News - The Advocate for the Commercial Fisherman

Vessel Profile: F/V Quantum Leap

After 20 Years, F/V Quantum Leap Still Ahead of the Curve


November 1, 2018

Peter Marsh

Luke Gardner's 32-foot Bristol Bay gillnetter is anything but ordinary with its raised wheelhouse.

Luke Gardner grew up in Southwest Washington at the mouth of the Columbia River, the home of the first great salmon fishery. But it was in Bristol Bay, Alaska that he first participated in the commercial fishing industry in 1992 while still in his teens – on a set-net operation on the North line at Egegik. He returned the next year with the goal of becoming a real gillnetter, starting off on a traditional wooden boat, and began learning the business.

By 1996, at the age of 22, Luke had worked his way up the fleet to a high-speed boat with twin waterjets and an experienced skipper. He was gaining valuable experience in this very competitive fishery and began thinking about getting his own boat. The late 1990's was the time when there was a short-lived boom in "tower" boats – double enders with the wheelhouse raised high above the deck to free up the entire boat for net handling and picking. He estimated there were about 40 or 50 of them on the bay.

He was interested in the concept, but felt that by choosing to dedicate them as sternpickers, the owners were failing to take full advantage of their potential. When he got home that fall, he was ready to build his own tower boat, as a bowpicker. He ordered a bare 32-foot aluminum hull from local boat builder Ed Erola of Chinook, Washington. Edwing Boats quickly delivered a fast hull with 14-foot, 6-inch beam, and a maximum capacity of 26,000 pounds.

Over the winter, Gardner fitted the hull with a standard bow roller, and the option to lay out over the stern through a pair of fairleads. The original hydraulic system (pumps motors, drum, rollers and rams and valves) was purchased from Maritime Fab of La Conner, Washington. For power, Gardner obtained two GM V8, 7.4-liter gasoline engines marinized by KEM in Tualatin, a few miles south of Portland. He installed these Kodiak 350 HP blocks himself and connected them to the company's own brand of waterjet.

Luke drew up and fabricated a pair of tall vents and tubular supports that were attached to reinforced pads on the deck to support both the helm station, 10 feet above the deck, and the base for the overhead reel. This was a very basic set-up with only a minimal windshield and fairing for protection from the elements. With plenty of freeboard and a raised foredeck, there was enough space in the bow for the standard accommodations with four bunks and galley.

On trials in the river, Luke found that the propulsion system could put out more than 700 HP wide open and push the unloaded boat at up to 22 knots. But only in perfect conditions: on the Bay, conditions were rarely perfect and with a load on board, Luke was not satisfied with the power package. At the end of the season, he shipped the boat home and went straight back to work.

He began by cutting out the aft end of the keel and replacing it with a delta pad. Then he installed a third Kodiak engine and KEM jet on the centerline. This made a real difference. "The boat was now reliably fast with up to 10,000 pounds aboard, during adverse conditions, or some combination of the two," he said.

The effort and expense finally began to pay off with some good seasons.

Luke perfected the deck gear and the boat's operation, and the Quantum Leap and crew were becoming a real fishing machine, and a consistent top producer for Icicle Seafoods. Most owners would have been satisfied to stop the modifications at that point. But this was just the start for Luke. Not surprisingly, the next upgrade was to build a fully enclosed wheelhouse at home and ship it north to the new "salmon Capital of the World."

He arrived early that year to make the switch. This upgrade allowed him to focus completely on the fishing, regardless of the weather. The next step took place below decks; it was to replace the hydraulic system with a shaft-driven hydraulic pump and new pilot controls to run all functions from the deck and the top-house.

This was followed by a major change to the drum and its overhead mounting base with a hydraulic turntable (slew drive). This mechanism is able to rotate the drum slowly to change the direction of the layout from the bow to the stern, temporarily switching from bow-pick to stern-pick through the fairleads on the stern, where a tubular grid on the transom keeps the net off the jets.

The last upgrade was a new bow-roller system he calls "the beast" with two rollers – one high and one low – so that the net runs over the top roller then under the lower to get more traction or grip on the net. That was built at home, and shipped north. The beast proved itself by giving him more power and control with a heavy net when hauling the gear. This proved very useful when he was fishing close to the line or getting too close to other boats and needed to get the net out of the water as quickly as possible.

In the 20 years that Luke has spent slowly transforming the Quantum Leap, the designers and builders of more conventional Bristol Bay boats were also refining hull shapes. More beam and capacity, and lightweight diesels with more horsepower have become standard equipment. So in 2017, Luke decided it was time to take another "quantum leap" with his own boat.

He shipped it back to Seattle, ran it down the Washington Coast, then back over the Columbia Bar to his homeport in Deep River, Washington. He found a space in Astoria at the Tongue Point shipyard where he set up a shop in a vacant area at the back of the huge WW II seaplane hangar. This was where the new Quantum Leap could be found early in 2018 undergoing a very ambitious re-design.

For the next stage in the boat's evolution, Luke had four main goals: cut off and replace the entire engine room, sponson the rest of the hull, erect two fully-enclosed towers, and insulate and finish out the forepeak. He hired a couple of local welders and they began with the drastic step of cutting off the entire engine room, leaving the forward 21 feet of the hull sitting on blocks.

The crew then opened up the bow plating, and narrowed the bottom plate to about 11.5 feet wide, before setting up a steel jig under the hull to support the new 30-inch-wide sponsons. This initial work was all done by eye and battens, and faired in nicely. It included built-in keel cooling using 4-inch aluminum half-pipe runs on the inside of the chine flats.

Unfortunately, progress came to a halt when all the CNC-cut parts for the new engine room – floors, frames, skin etc. – turned out to be nearly useless because they didn't fit. Luke cautions anyone trying to do a conversion that a minor issue in the CAD software can quickly turn into a disaster. The fault was traced back to the designer he hired having failed to update/renew his expensive software.

It quickly became evident that trying to correct the errors was more costly than just making new parts by hand. The "if it fits, it ships" protocol was established for the rest of the project, said Luke. They resorted to the traditional method of cutting cardboard patterns, tracing the outline, and hand-cutting and fitting the replacement parts. Needless to say, this slowed down the project, but they never lost sight of the goal.

In the spring, Beau Brendan of Defiant Boatworks was added to the crew to make up for the lost time, and the pace picked up. Three lightweight diesels were installed in the new engine room, which was a definite step up from the crowded old version, with more headroom and added width. The center engine has a high-performance turbo system that makes it look like a "booster" motor, and the tall transom boasts three used Hamilton waterjets. The center unit has a significantly larger custom-built bucket that can act as a stern thruster.

Luke was pleased to see things finally coming together. Compared to the basic tower supports he used for 20 years, the new design is very nicely shaped with gravity-feed freshwater tanks at the top and space for a gear locker at the bottom, plus a single seat on the aft end out of the weather where the crew can take a break between sets. The towers also provide ladder wells into the engine bay.

"The curves of the superstructure are easy on the eyes and blend nicely into the hull with some exceptionally good welding," Luke pointed out. The 15 hatches and compartments in the mid-deck with a capacity of 20,000 pounds remained in place, while the new voids along the side were used for extra fuel tanks and storage lockers. The end product is really a work of industrial art, in my opinion, and the additions look very well engineered.

With all the delays and without the new refrigeration system that had sparked the renovation in the first place, the new Quantum Leap wasn't ready to go back into the water until the end of May, well beyond the deadline for scheduled shipping by barge. Fortunately, Luke had a personal friend, Tim Haataia, who runs the tender F/V Fierce Leader and had space on deck to carry the gillnetter back to the bay.

Peter Marsh

The center Hamilton waterjet has a significantly larger custom-built bucket that can act as a stern thruster.

They needed to reach Seattle ASAP, and when the boat finally floated off the trailer it looked a little top-heavy, but in the water it looked sleek and functional with its curved towers reflecting the sunset.

After a last-minute issue with a small leak around the center jet, Luke and one of his crew set off across the Columbia to Deep River, Washington, the dock closest to his home. There was only time for a very quick turnaround before they set off for Puget Sound to catch the ride to Bristol Bay.

After a season in the Bay, "The hull and machinery performed magnificently together," Luke said. "The boat runs clean on the water with no ill effects through speeds of 40-plus knots at fishing weight," he reported. "I couldn't catch enough fish to slow it down too much... but there is always next year," he concluded with a wink.


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