Over the mountain: Wegley Boats proves it’s never too late to learn new tricks

This is about the preservation of a fine fish boat company with a great track record in Bristol Bay,” says Alaska fisherman Keith “Corky” Singleton. “Somebody just needed to firestart the evolution of the company to meet the market.”

The Wegley family has built almost 400 fiberglass boats, mostly 32-footers for the Bristol Bay salmon fishery, out of its shop in Bellingham, Wash. “We’ve built up to 42 feet for other fisheries,” says Jim Wegley.

Jim worked with his father, Bill, at Wegley Boats for almost 40 years before Bill passed away in March 2018 at age 92.

“When Bill died, people thought the yard was closing,” Singleton says. “But a bunch of us got together and said, ‘We can’t let that happen. Wegley boats means too much to the fishery.’” For Singleton, building his new boat at Wegley’s is part of a bigger story.

“I’ve been wanting to build a wider boat for the last five years, but my father said no,” Wegley adds. He had been keeping the idea on the back burner until Singleton showed up. Singleton, a longtime Alaska fisherman and Bristol Bay gillnetter, has a fondness for fiberglass boats and Wegley boats in particular.

“I asked Jim if we could widen one,” Singleton adds. “And he said, ‘Why not?’”

Singleton’s new boat, the Miss Heather, will be 32 feet long with a beam of 14.5 feet. “I wanted more hold capacity and more space in the engine room,” says Singleton. “And I wanted to be able to use her for longlining and crabbing.”

“We call it the XX Jumbo,” says Wegley, though at press time, the company website identified it as the XXL.

To make the wider boat, he started by laying up a hull in his 32′ x 12′ 6” mold. “You build a fiberglass boat from the outside in,” he says. “First, we coat the mold with release wax, and then apply the gel coat, which is the color of the boat. If you sand the mold with 1500 grit, it makes for a really smooth, shiny hull.”

Wegley’s partner, Pedro Sandias, leads a crew of five men in applying five layers of fiberglass. “We start with three layers of 32-08,” says Wegley. “Then two layers of 24-08. It takes five guys 10 hours.” The team adds the stringers and engine bed. With Singleton’s hull out of the mold, they departed from the normal process, and cut it into three pieces.

“They cut it from stem to stern on either side of the keel,” says Singleton, who has been deeply involved in the process. “They had each side on dollies ,and they rolled those out, a foot on each side, and fiberglassed that in so it made a fair hull.”

Wegley then built the bulkheads and tophouse with Nida Core. “It’s a honeycomb plastic developed for the airplane industry,” he says. “It makes the boat lighter, so it will draw less and keep the speed up.” Wegley put 1-1/2-inch Nida Core in the deck. “It makes it stiffer,” he says.

Jim Wegley built the wheelhouse, decks and bulkheads with Nida Core. “It’s strong but light,” he says. Keith Singleton photo.

“You could drive a tank over it,” says Singleton.

In addition to widening the boat and using Nida Core for the bulkheads, Wegley and Singleton came up with a new design for the wheelhouse. “It’s fully enclosed,” says Wegley. “So you don’t have to get wet.”

“It’s got good visibility, with Diamond Sea Glaze windows all around, a day bunk for me, and internal access to the galley,” says Singleton.

Wegley started building Singleton’s boat in May 2018 and expects to finish by March 2019. The company focuses on building the hull and its structural element, and contracts out much of the other work.

“We put in the windows and lay the shaft tube,” says Wegley, by way of example. “But we had guys come in to insulate the fish hold with a half inch of foam.”

Outside companies will also install Singleton’s engine, electrical and hydraulic systems. “He’s putting in a 425 John Deere, and hydraulic RSW,” says Wegley. “The buyers will only buy if you have RSW next year.”

Singleton’s boat is currently the only one under construction, but the XXL is attracting a lot of attention. “There’s a lot of comments on the website [wegleyboats.com],” says Wegley.

When Wegley started working for his father in 1977, the shop had only been in operation since 1971. “My father hired good people, and I learned from them. He was more the designer and businessman. He was good at talking to people.”

Wegley recounts an instance of his father getting involved in the work later in life. “He came in one day and asked if I’d hired anyone new. I said, ‘No, but I’d like to fire someone. The guy that cut those windows out. They’re all too low.’ It was him.”

The elder Wegley not only built boats, but he also fished 20 salmon seasons in Bristol Bay, and Jim went along with him for 9 years.

“We took three boats over the mountain,” he says. Wegley and his father would launch a new boat in Homer, Alaska, steam across Cook Inlet to Westport, and take the boat overland to Lake Iliamna. From there they would take the boat downriver to Naknek on Bristol Bay. “We’d put a For Sale sign on it, and people would start asking questions. We’d sell the boat at the end of the season.”

The road over to the lake is the reason the first XXL could only be 14.5 feet wide. “There’s a couple of bridges that are only 15 feet wide,” says Wegley. As many times as he made the crossing, Wegley never took a photograph. “I thought about it, but a picture would never tell the truth of it.”

“Once you get out of the lake, the Kvichak River turns into a maze,” says Singleton, who plans to take his boat over the mountain in the spring of 2019 and bring her back after the season to longline halibut and blackcod.

“We just got two crab permits,” says Singleton. “So we can commute down the Inside Passage and fish Dungeness crab all winter.” In the spring he will take her back up and over the mountain to restart the multifishery cycle.

The Miss Heather’s fish holds are built to fit brailer bags and chill fish with an IMS refrigerated seawater system. Keith Singleton photo.

Singleton believes the Miss Heather will deliver on many levels, particularly capacity, performance and comfort. “She can hold 20,000 pounds,” he says, chilled quickly in an IMS hydraulic-powered RSW system. “We have two hydraulic pumps,” says Singleton, a 6 and a 4.8. “We have an 8-inch Naiad bow thruster, anchor winch, and a Kolstrand three-shackle drum and roller.” Singleton uses the bow thruster when hauling in a crosswind, and when coming alongside the tender in rough conditions.

“We put a 6-inch lifting strake to get her to plane more, and 18-inch trim tabs on the stern,” he adds. He hopes to get a maximum of 18 knots, and an average of 10-12 knots cruising speed, loaded, without burning too much fuel. With a 425-hp John Deere 6090 AFM 85 turning a 26” x 26” four-blade propeller through a Twin Disc 2:1 gear, Singleton thinks he can come close to matching the fuel consumption of his previous 375-hp engine.

“It’s going to have amazing fuel economy the way she’s trimmed,” he says. “I think I’ll be able to run at 1,800 and burn about 4 gallons an hour.”

Singleton hasn’t spared on creature comforts. In addition to the day bed tophouse, he has bunks for four crew and a galley table that drops down to make a double bed. The boat has hot and cold running water, a shower and, in addition to a full suite of Garmin electronics, will be equipped with Iridium satellite Internet. “I’ll be able to have email, and we’ll have data ports, so the crew can watch Netflix. It’s going to be a very high-tech boat.”

Ready for paint in the fall of 2018, Wegley hopes to have the 32′ x 14′ 6″ gillnetter, longliner and crabber finished by March 2019. Keith Singleton photo.

Bill Wegley might shake his head at the idea of Netflix onboard. Born in 1925, he was old school. But he was a highly respected boatbuilder.

Five-hundred Alaska fishermen came to the funeral to pay their respects, and Alaska’s then-Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott offered the eulogy.

“He was 18 when he first met my father,” says Jim. “They were good friends.” Singleton and other fishermen are honoring the Wegley legacy by continuing to support the company.

Jim Wegley is optimistic. “If we get more orders for the XXL, we’ll build a mold and keep going.”

About the author

Paul Molyneaux is the Boats & Gear editor for National Fisherman.

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