Story last updated at 1/8/2014 - 4:02 pm
An illegal teenage crew member may not have been unusual in the mid-1950s. But my husband Frank and I hadn't heard the stories of his brother, Don, doing just that. Today, any person on a boat doing commercial fishing has to have a crew license.
The Roppel family moved to Ketchikan in 1954 during the Ketchikan Pulp Mill's construction. Over the yeas, their father, Robert Roppel, developed many cronies. One was Fred Brandies with his wooden fishing boat "Pirate." Bob got Don a crew job on the boat.
The vessel was powered by an ancient, low-RPM Washington diesel engine. He had to use a bar to turn a huge flywheel to turn the compression cycle and then hit the air to make the engine run. If Fred needed to put the engine in reverse, he had to go to the engine room, shut off the engine, and move a cam lever that reversed the engine. Then he restarted the engine. Fred said one time when he barred, the engine fired and his hand was caught between the bar and the tool bench. This shattered his hand.
Fred mostly purse seined herring in front of Ketchikan. Don explained the process to us. After pursing the net around a school of herring it was towed to a small, floating holding pen tied to Paul Hansen's grocery store that was right next to the Ketchikan Cold Storage.
"We brailed the herring into the holding pen. Fred explained that we were going to kill the herring in the pen using electricity. This could be dangerour if not careful."
Fred had wired electrodes at each end of the holding pen. Paul Hansen supplied the electricity. When Fred first began his business, the extension cord burned in half. Upon consulting with an electrical friend, Fred had a row of six heaters installed on the fish pen to draw current down prior to the charge being applied to the electrical plates. After shocking them, the floating fish were scooped out.
"We put them into packages of 12 and delivered these to the cold storage for freezing," he said.
Fred had a contract to provide frozen herring to a commercial sport fishing company.
After fishing season, Don helped remove the big engine, weighing about a ton out of the engine room. Fred replaced it with a much smaller Cummins with a gear box and all the controls that were in the pilot house The engine and the wheel were ceremoniously dumped overboard as breakwater anchors for the Northern Commercial Companv in Ketchikan.
"The front of the Pirate seemed to raise a foot without the old engine."
Another trip Don made was from Juneau Cold storage. Fred went around the south end of Douglas Island and anchored on the west side of Mud Bav on the north end of Chichagof lsland for the night. The tide went out and Fred found out why it was called Mud Bay. The Pirate, with an almost flat bottom, lay over on the muddy flats; luckily there were no rocks or debris to punch a hole in the wood hull. The incoming tide refloated the boat, and they continued through Peril Strait to the outside of Baranof lsland and to the entrance of Red Fish Bay. Here they picked up sockeyes from a seiner. That captain was a creek robber who had paid off the creek watchman. He then made a set in the bay that was closed to commercial fishihg. That creek only supports sockeyes so it was a lucrative haul.
On the return trip, the Pirate went around the south end of Baranof lsland and up Chatham Strait with a following sea. Don was on the wheel for four hours and Fred for eight. They overnighted at Tenakee Hot Springs. The next morning, Fred told Don to check the fuel in the tank and it was low. Fred grumbled and refused to pay the high price at this small village, and said, "We have fuel enough to reach Juneau."
So, the Pirate headed out in Chatham. When the heavy engine was removed, the bow rose higher, and with a big load of fish in the hold, the aft rode even lower. The fuel pickup was at the front of the tank
"You guessed it," Don said later. "We had plenty of fuel at the aft end of the tank but not the front. Someone towed us back to Tenakee springs."
Don continued his story: "When we returned to Chatham, it was rough and we went diagonally across and holed up in either Hawk Inlet or Funter Bay. I recognized this bay when I read the book "Maggie Murphey" 60 years later. I saw the cabins and homes on the beach that John Ryan wrote about. We did not stay there long because the fish in the hole were not refrigerated nor on ice, the practice in those days. A cannery just north of the Juneau, Douglas Bridge was waiting for the fish to arrive at 3 a.m. A full crew had been called in due to the load.
Another trip out of Juneau offered up an opportunity for Don to fly in a float plane piloted by a friend of Fred.
"We flew quite a ways to a fish trap before landing," he said. "The pilot had me tie up the plane to the trap and he talked pleasantly to the trap watchman who was chatty and amicable. The next day the pilot, who also owned a small purse seiner stored at the Juneau harbor, asked me if I wanted to go on a short adventure. Fred said, 'Go ahead, we have time.' So we robbed the fish trap the next day. We tied up to the fish trap and the skipper opened the holding area and began to brail the fish into the boat's hold. I don't remember if the pilot gave the watchman a bribe, if so it was very discreetly done."