Expert Aboard: Catalyst Ship Review

December 17, 2020 • Todd Smith

AdventureSmith Founder and President Todd Smith reviews the historic 11-guest yacht Catalyst after a recent Alaska small ship cruise. Use the AdventureSmith team’s small ship cruise reviews and insights to inform, inspire and book your next trip aboard a small cruise ship.

Historic Ambiance Meets Wilderness Cruising

The Catalyst is a wood-and-steel testament to a simpler time when travel and society was slower. Her craftsmanship and immaculate upkeep convey a dedication to doing things right. She is not luxurious, but she is the perfect vessel and metaphor for an unhurried voyage through wild places.

The wood structure and furnishings aboard Catalyst are beautiful. The interior is warm with varnished wood paneling, heavy beamed ceilings and a sense of charm that harkens back to the golden age of cruising. Don’t skip the engine room tour as her historic 1932 diesel engine is a sight to behold.

Choose a cruise aboard the Catalyst if you are seeking a beautiful boat with rich history, an amazing crew providing a high level of intellectual stimulation, a thoughtful, up-close, active exploration of remote destinations, and an amazing menu of delicious cuisine creatively prepared and sourced from local ingredients.

Catalyst Cabins &
A Word About Bunks

There is no getting around it, the cabins are small and can be tight with two people. Couples in below-deck cabins might need to take turns using the bathroom and getting ready. Most cabins have private en-suite bathrooms, the exception being Cabins #4 and #5 which share a common bath.

There are bunks aboard the Catalyst, not beds. The Oxford Dictionary defines a bunk as “a narrow shell-like bed, typically one of two or more arranged one on top of the other.” This definition is apt for the Catalyst and describes the bedding situation accurately.

Cabin #1 on the Main Deck is the most accessible, no stairs required. It has a door to the salon and a door to the outside observation deck. The sink is outside of the shower and this cabin has the most room for two guests to get ready at the same time. Cabin #6 is a popular choice and among the first to book because it has large view windows. Keep in mind that you must ascend and descend a steep outside ladder every time to move from this cabin to the main deck. See our detailed Catalyst yacht description page for further cabin details.

Creative storage solutions are everywhere with drawers, shelves, cubbies and hooks for clothing and gear. But overall storage is limited. Boots and some gear can be stored in a common hallway closet. Do not bring hard-sided suitcases and pack as light as you can. No need for fancy clothes or dress shoes aboard the casual Catalyst. Fleece pants and t-shirts are perfectly acceptable dinner attire. The Catalyst will provide knee-high rubber boots or neoprene booties, needed when transferring from the Zodiac to the shore in shallow water.

A clever ventilation system brings fresh air from outside into the cabins and can be closed for warmth if needed. Radiant heat in each cabin works extremely well and served to dry the cabin and any wet rain gear after a hot steamy shower.

Newly installed marine toilets are modern, exceptional for a living relic like the Catalyst. Like many small boats the toilet is in the shower, and in some cabins the sink is in there too. Liquid soap is provided near the sink and shower but you may wish to bring your own hair or skin products.

Aboard some historic wooden boats, mold and mildew can be an issue, but not aboard Catalyst. I have never seen a wooden boat of her nature so clean and polished; the natural result, I imagine, of considerable and constant hard work and attention to detail. Again, a testament to the operator’s commitment to taking the time to do things right.

Mobility Considerations

The steep stairways between decks require a certain amount of mobility to navigate. In most cabins there is only room for one person to get dressed at a time. Descending the ladder to enter the kayaks can be tricky and good mobility is required. Entry into the inflatable Zodiac, also achieved via a ladder from the side of the Catalyst, is much easier to navigate but similarly requires mobility to get up and down the ladder.

Comfy Common Areas & “See” Level Observation Deck

The outside decks are where much of the action takes place and are perfectly laid out for watching wildlife. The forward deck never feels crowded with photographers easily avoiding one another for the perfect shot. A 360-degree main observation deck allows guests to spread out. The raised bow gives a good vantage point while the lower stern deck allows for a “see” level view of marine life. The covered aft deck was a favorite spot of mine to sit quietly with my feet on the rail to read and enjoy the scenery. Another observation area on the Upper Deck provides even more room when viewing wildlife.

The salon is small but comfortable, fostering camaraderie among guests while eating meals together or relaxing after an activity. The galley is tiny, and it is amazing how the chef can produce such incredible meals in such a small space. Like any kitchen at a dinner party, the galley is the focal point for socializing and participation. It opens to a smaller breakfast nook table and coffee station where guests can sit to watch and talk with the chef.

The open bridge is welcoming and always a place for lively conversation. The library is the most extensive I have seen, even aboard small ships with ten times the capacity. Another example of the deep thought that goes into the preparation and experience aboard Catalyst. 

Amazing Alaskan Cuisine With A Twist

Our ship description states that “food is a sacred thing aboard the Catalyst,” but even this bold statement does not do it justice. Each meal was a surprise and a delight, and the chef’s humble announcements became a thing of immense joy. “Roasted coho salmon, saffron tomato brodo shrimp dumplings, bok choy and dill pickled onions” he would quietly murmur as colorful plates were presented to us. Each dinner was paired with a white and red wine while a cooler of local beers was always available.  

The food features the usual staples of Alaskan cuisine including fresh salmon, halibut, crab, shrimp, and tender steaks, but always prepared in a unique manner. Here is a sample menu from my Alaska cruise. Veggies are sourced from a local organic farm in Petersburg. Breads, pastries and desserts are all made on board from scratch. The Chef had me enjoying things I typically do not like, such as a starter of fried beets, curry yogurt, and toasted cumin seed granola with mint and basil. Desserts were creative and delicious such as burnt honey panna cotta, fried mochi rhubarb, blueberries, figs and coconut. The food aboard Catalyst will impress even the most sophisticated palate.

Catalyst Crew Is Exceptional

It is rare, even aboard small ships, for the crew to share the experience so seamlessly. The small crew aboard the Catalyst is exceptional, both collectively and individually. Each has a specialty and yet each must do a little of everything to make it work. In some ways their presence is so casual, they seem like guests themselves, interacting and enjoying the experience right along with you. I also sense that guidance and inspiration from Catalyst owner Bill Bailey is present. His love for the sea and older wooden boats is reflected in the boat and her crew.

Read our previous Expert Reviews aboard the Catalyst (Inside Passage Catalyst Plus Denali and Journey to Alaska’s Inside Passage) from AdventureSmith staff in years past and you will find that this exceptional crew is a constant over the years.

Catalyst Ship Review Takeaways

Aboard the Catalyst living spaces are small but her spirit is as big as the great outdoors. This is not the type of cruise where you spend a lot of time in your cabin. This boat and her crew deliver a style of travel where up-close exploration and intimate encounters matter more than miles traveled and landmarks checked off. Aboard the Catalyst, connecting with your surroundings is more important than amenities. Take the time to slow down and recall a bygone era where travel was about the journey and the experience, not the destination or famous ports. If you are the type of person who takes the time to do things right, and appreciates that quality in others, then the Catalyst is the yacht for you.

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