MAKing It: Staying afloat, even on rough seas

SPONSORED: The Alaska family behind Whittier-based Babkin Charters has learned to adapt to whatever fate has in store - from stormy weather to an oil spill to a global pandemic.

Presented by First National Bank Alaska

On a cold, wintry day earlier this spring, sister-brother duo Alex and Brad von Wichman found themselves someplace they wouldn’t usually be at lunchtime at the beginning of charter season: sitting together in Whittier, drinking coffee.

At this time of year, they’re usually out on the water, each captaining a vessel for Babkin Charters, the business they own and run together with Brad’s wife, Kjersti.

“I was supposed to start a trip today, but we’ve got storm warnings in the sound,” Alex said.

It isn’t often that a charter has to be postponed for weather, but it does happen. That’s just the nature of the business when you work on the ocean, along with making sure clients understand their itineraries may be subject to change for safety reasons.

“You have to be completely up front and honest about the reality of the situation,” Brad said. “Tell them up front: ‘This is Alaska, and we work around the weather.’”

The value of versatility

Captaining a ship is a lot like running a business: You hope for clear skies and smooth sailing, but when rough weather sets in, you need to be prepared to batten down the hatches and ride out the storm.

“It’s all just part of the deal,” Brad said.

The von Wichmans’ business philosophy is deeply rooted in the values of flexibility and versatility. Over the last year in particular, they’ve been glad they live by the advice Brad said he’d give any small business owner: “Don’t do just one thing. Do as many things as you possibly can.”

The von Wichmans fill just about every role in their business and have taught themselves how to do anything from managing spreadsheets to applying for fishing permits to fixing plumbing problems, doing as much of their own work as they can.

“It’s not boring,” Alex said.

That adaptability and willingness to try new things were the qualities that led to the launching of their charter business more than 30 years ago. Alex and Brad grew up in Anchorage and spent summers exploring Prince William Sound and Resurrection Bay on their family’s 21-foot fishing boat. As teenagers, they started shrimping with their brother, hauling out the pots by hand. In 1981, the family upgraded to the 42-foot Alexandra, and Brad and Alex worked their way through college fishing for halibut, sea urchins, shrimp and herring.

Then fate threw a wrench into the works.

In the spring of 1989, as Alex was about to graduate from the University of Utah, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef. Instead of fishing, they spent that summer working on oil spill cleanup and ferrying scientists around Prince William Sound.

“The fisheries, after that, looked pretty dismal,” Brad said. “So we wanted to expand and decided to go into chartering.” That’s when Babkin Charters was born. The Alexandra can be outfitted for either commercial fishing or passenger charters. The family soon found a new rhythm, fishing in the early season and then resetting the boat for an overnight charter season that runs from April through September.

Around the same time, the business -- and the family -- grew through the addition of Kjersti Nilsen, one of Alex’s college ski teammates. Born in Norway, Kjersti joined Alex and Brad on a drive up the Alcan after graduation in 1989 and ended up staying.

“Mom always said, ‘Be nice to your sister, because she will have friends,’” Brad said.

Mom’s advice proved to be wise. Brad and Kjersti (now Kjersti von Wichman) married in 1997 and spent their honeymoon cruising from Tacoma to Whitter on the newly-built Babkin. For years, Kjersti’s onboard cooking set the benchmark for Babkin Charters’ meals, but when she and Brad became parents, she transitioned to an onshore role as the company’s “logistics manager,” keeping things running while Brad and Alex are out on charter.

Adventure on the agenda

So what’s it like working with your sibling?

“It has its moments,” Brad said.

“That’s why we have separate boats,” Alex added, laughing.

All kidding aside, the von Wichmans have a close relationship -- they even finish one another’s sentences -- and they enjoy working together. Brad’s teenage kids are crew members, too, and having them in the family business has been a lot of fun and a big help.

“It’s a great thing for them because they’re learning how to deal with people,” Brad said. “They’re learning responsibilities.”

Babkin Charters’ sailings are tailored to charter groups’ individual desires, and no two trips are alike. Most guests want to see whales; many are interested in hiking, back-country skiing, kayaking or blueberry picking, depending on the season. Alaska’s unique attractions are on a lot of travelers’ bucket lists.

“Most want to see a tidewater glacier while we still have them,” Alex said.

Guests sail on the Alexandra, which accommodates up to six passengers, and/or the Babkin, a 58-foot charter boat that sleeps up to 12. The Alexandra offers a little more of a camping experience, with V-berths in a shared bunk space, while the Babkin’s all-teak interior features three cozy staterooms. Comfortable cabins, toasty heaters and delicious meals are ready to welcome passengers back after a day of Alaska adventuring.

“If it’s your typical Prince William Sound day where it’s wet outside … you always have a nice warm, dry boat to come back to,” Brad said.

“A little whiskey with glacier ice is nice at the end of the day, too,” Alex added.

During a normal season, Babkin hosts clients from all over the U.S. and across the world -- scientists, vacationers, photographers, adventure-seekers -- and is booked solid from spring through early fall.

Last year, however, was anything but normal.

Pivoting amid a pandemic

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic all but shut down Alaska’s travel and tourism industry.

Much like the 1989 oil spill, the pandemic forced a major shift in Babkin’s business. But while the Exxon Valdez disaster left visible, lingering reminders everywhere, COVID has been notable for the things that can’t be seen -- an invisible virus, a calendar mostly empty of bookings, an indefinite end date.

During the 2020 season, school trips were canceled, multigenerational family vacations were ill-advised, and international visitors -- like the European and Japanese tourists that Babkin often hosts -- were locked down at home.

Babkin responded to the challenge by trying to be, as Alex put it, “as fluid as possible.” With only three charters on the books, the crew spent most of last season fishing as much as they could, both on their own permits and on behalf of other permit holders.

“You’ve just got to roll with it,” Brad said. “We fished through October last year.” Prices were depressed because of decreased demand from restaurants, but “it was still income,” he added.

Like thousands of other Alaska employers, Babkin Charters received funds through the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to help get through the year.

“PPP has been a godsend,” Brad said. “That’s saved so many businesses.”

First National Bank Alaska helped Babkin secure the PPP funds that were vital to making it through 2020 in good shape, Alex said. A representative from First National called Babkin the very first day that the bank started accepting PPP applications and helped walk Alex through the process -- even keeping the call going for a smooth handoff after the first banker’s wife went into labor while he was on the phone with Alex.

“That’s how personal it is,” Alex said. “It was just seamless.”

Babkin Charters started banking with First National after having an unpleasant experience with a “too big to fail”-type national bank.

“It’s local,” Alex said. “I think it makes a huge difference (compared to) when you call and get someone in Minnesota or Florida that doesn’t even know where Alaska is.”

Both Alex and Brad like that they know their local branch manager -- Rachel Carlson at Anchorage’s U-Med location -- by name, and the employees recognize their families when they come in. Last season, Brad said, he lost count of the number of times he had to stop by First National to ask for help getting commercial fishing license transfers notarized. Even though the lobby was closed as a health and safety measure, it was easy to make an appointment to come in for the help he needed.

“We love them,” Alex said. “You know that it’s just more personal (at First National).”

Hope on the horizon

The people-focused service that they appreciate from First National Bank Alaska is the same kind of experience the von Wichmans try to foster in their own business. Being out on the water, living in close quarters for up to a week at a time, they savor the opportunity to get to know their guests.

“People are fascinating,” Alex said. “You actually get to meet these people in a really comfortable, natural setting.”

This summer, they will have more opportunities to spend time in that setting. With vaccines widely available in Alaska -- including to visitors -- things seem like they’re starting to move back toward normal. The charter business is gradually picking up, although only the Babkin will carry passengers; the Alexandra is staying “pretty much in fishing mode” for the season, Brad said.

“We’re really cautiously optimistic,” Alex said, adding that they’re starting to hear more from parents interested in booking family trips with their children and grandchildren. Especially now that more is known about how COVID-19 spreads and can be prevented, a private charter is an attractive option, she added: “Multigenerational trips are starting to feel more confident, because they realize they’re in their own bubble when they’re with us. We’re really quite isolated with what we do and where we go.”

And although no one knows when -- or how -- travel will go “back to normal,” the family behind Babkin Charters says they’re ready to adapt to whatever might come next so they can keep getting visitors out on the water to experience Alaska.

“They’re trusting us,” Brad said…

“ give them the trip of a lifetime,” Alex finished.

First National Bank Alaska has been Alaska’s community bank since 1922. We’re proud to support Alaskans by investing in your success as you take the leaps of faith, large and small, that enrich communities across the state.

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This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.