Bob Allen, Alaska maritime entrepreneur, boat builder and storyteller, dies at 83

Bob Allen (at right), with his brother Jack, reminiscing on the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Great Alaska Quake. In his crab boat “Fern,” Allen rescued 131 adults and children from the destroyed villages of Kaguyak and Old Harbor on Kodiak Island. (KCAW photo/Emily Forman)

The founder of one of Alaska’s largest homegrown marine tourism companies has died. Bob Allen, of Sitka’s Allen Marine, passed away Monday morning, March 2. He was 83 years old.

Bob Allen’s is a classic Alaskan story. His father first came to the territory from California and got a toehold working on the sternwheeler riverboats operated by the railroad companies. Bob joined him as a teenager, as the family settled in Nenana.

“You were on your own. You really were out in the middle of nowhere, and you had to take care of yourself and the community,” said his son, Rob Allen, of his dad’s ingenuity and work ethic. “And so I think he just got used to doing things.”

Allen continued: “If something needed to be done, you just had to take care of it yourself. He talked about that, when he talked about growing up there. He had a fish wheel, because he had dogs. A dog team. And he had to use the fish wheel to catch dog salmon to dry for the dog team for their food for the winter. Of course, he had a skiff with an outboard, and those outboards were a little more temperamental in those days. He said you had to work on it for two hours to get one hour of running out of it. And he always preferred to go upriver, because then he could at least drift home when the outboard inevitably broke down.”

This explains a lot about Bob Allen, but not everything. He bought a Piper and learned to fly — eventually earning a twin engine rating. He tried his hand at prospecting, and at commercial fishing. He was always looking for opportunity, and Rob said he didn’t really fear failure — an attitude that underpinned all his future business endeavors: barge repair with his brothers Jack and Buck, running a boat yard, seafood processing, shipbuilding, marine transportation, and finally tourism. 

By the end of Bob’s life, Allen Marine would operate a large fleet of catamarans running day tours out of Sitka, Juneau, and Ketchikan — all built in the company plant in Sitka — and would own a small cruise line called Alaskan Dream Cruises.

“I think one of the things about him is that he was always working,” Rob Allen said. “You know, in the summer growing up we’d start off the day in the morning well before 7, out at the cruise ship picking up a load of people to do the Silver Bay cruise. Those were a couple of hours. We’d finish up at 11. And then he would take off to the boatyard or the shop … and sometimes jump right in and be helping with sandblasting or painting or welding. And then in the summer, every night for Silver Bay we had the “locals’ cruise.” That was just anybody who showed up. Independent travelers. It was an evening cruise at 6 or 7 at night — again, a two-and-a-half hour cruise — so he would be on the boat to 9 or 9:30 doing a trip. And he was happy to go with two people. It didn’t matter to him. We’d have a boat with 150-passenger capacity and he’d have two people up in the wheelhouse, each paid $10 bucks, and he’d be doing the tour. One of us kids would be along as a deckhand. I got a lot of reading done. I’d be in the back with my library book.”

And you can’t really tell Bob Allen’s story without mentioning the kids. In 1961 Allen met his future wife Betty, a single mother of two girls, when she waited on him at Angelo’s in Juneau. The couple would have three more children — all of whom played a part in building Allen Marine, if only to keep the business running despite their teenage disinclination for work. Rob Allen said there was a time in the 1980s, when maintaining the chip barges for the Alaska Pulp Corporation was Allen Marine’s principal business, and tourism a costly sideline, that the family nearly mutinied.

“So there was a real discussion about whether we should get rid of the tourism business,” Rob Allen said. “At that point, as kids, we were just tired of getting up early in the morning. (Laughs) So, the kids might have voted to get rid of it at that point. It was close, but we kept them all.”

Once Rob and his siblings were old enough to hold captain’s licenses, the pressure eased on Bob Allen somewhat, and the tourism side of the business gained real momentum. Like any of Alaska’s coastal waters, Sitka has its share of dismal, wet days. But Rob said that passengers were seldom disappointed when his dad would leave the wheelhouse and plug in a microphone in the main cabin.

“And he could really change the whole feel of cruise just by going down there,” said Allen. “Answering questions, talking about his history in Alaska and the earthquake. You’ve got a boatload of people wondering why in the hec they took this tour, and he would just totally turn it around with his storytelling.”

“The earthquake,” of course, was on Good Friday in 1964, while Bob Allen was piloting a 100-foot crab boat offshore of Kodiak.

“They were all on the beach, right at the head of the bay where the old village had been. They had no food, no blankets. All they had was one little radio. And we brought out 46 adults, and probably 15 children. And one body. They were in shock,” Rob Allen said.

Bob’s story of the rescue of the village of Kaguyak was told to KCAW in 2014 on the 50th Anniversary of the Great Quake. Allen and his crew all told would deliver 130 tsunami survivors to the Kodiak Naval Station — all while never knowing the fate of his own young family.

When you reach a point where there’s nothing you can do to take care of your own family, you say, ‘Okay, I’ll take care of what I can — somebody else’s family — and somebody else is going to look after mine, I hope,” he said at the time.

The Allen family all made it through the quake safely, and relocated to Sitka in 1967.