Story last updated at 3/5/2014 - 2:19 pm
The halibut fishing industry in Southeast started in 1888 when sailing schooners pushed farther north in search of natural ice to preserve their catches. That year, the Oscar And Hattie sailed north because there was no ice in Puget Sound or British Columbian waters. The vessel continued northward and found the icebergs of Glacier Bay. A couple of spars were broken in the violent winds of the larger fjords, so the ship returned to Sitka for repairs before returning south. The next year in December, the Oscar And Hattie returned to the vicinity of Sitka. These successful trips initiated halibut fishing in Southeast Alaska.
When steamers began to replace sail, the Edith, once the private yacht of W. C. Ralston, fished in the industry until 1905. The career of the Edith has been covered in a previous column. Other steamers joined in the halibut fishery.
The next type of vessels combined technology from the steamers and the sailboats. Some of these were true sailing schooners that had been converted. These were propelled primarily by internal combustion engines using various fuels: distillate, gasoline or in later years, diesel.
The designation as a "schooner" arose because they had two masts. The vessels carried sails for stability and as auxiliary power since early engines were sometimes unreliable. Unlike the early sailing schooners, the halibut boats had the mainsail on the foremast. Over time, sails were gradually dispensed with except for the main sail. Eventually they were no longer used once radio telephones became available.
These schooners dominated the fishery west of Cape Spencer for many years. Wooden schooners are narrow - usually 18-foot beam - making them relatively economical to propel. They were constructed of tight-grained old-growth Douglas fir that is relatively resistant to rot. Despite these advantages, wooden boats have given way to metal or fiberglass ones partly because these have larger, wider decks that can accommodate other fishing gear, such as crab pots.
The durability and effectiveness of the wooden schooners is attested by the fact that many are still fishing halibut all these years later. In a recent Seattle Times article, I learned that about 300 Seattle-based boats are expected to head to Alaska for the 2014 halibut season. Among them are fewer than 20 wooden schooners. In earlier years, these boats numbered over 150.
According to the Center for Wood Boats, three were built in 1913: the 87-foot Vansee and the 73.4-foot Polaris, built side-by-side in Seattle's Salmon Bay by Norway native John Strand. In some places, the sister ships' frames were actually cut from the same tree. Another is the 66-foot Seymour, built in Tacoma.
The Center sponsored a parade on Lake Washington in mid-February before the halibut and black cod March opening in Alaska. Among the other schooners heading North this season are the Resolute built in 1924; Grant, built in 1925; Evening Star, constructed in 1945; Kristiana, built in 1945; Memories, constructed in 1947; and the St. John II, built in 1950.
Although not in the parade, the Tordenskjold will undoubtedly come north this year.
The Polaris demonstrates the changes brought on by new technology. According to F. Heward Bell in "The Pacific Halibut," she originally had a 100 h.p. Frisco Standard gas engine.
It was replaced by a semi- diesel of the same brand in 1920. This was replaced with a 175 h.p. Atlas full diesel in 1932. By 1966, technology had advanced to the point that a 340 h.p. General Motors high-rpm diesel was installed. Undoubtedly other wooden schooners repowered in similar fashions.
As for the superstructures, a new pilot house and new decking were added to the Polaris. Improved fishing techniques brought more fish, so an enlarged fish hold for 7,000 pounds of iced fish was added in 1932-33. The original had an 80,O00-pound capacity. In 1956, another refrigerated hold was built to stow additional halibut, bringing the boat's capacity to 100,000 pounds. I couldn't find what her capacity is today, and if she has been repowered again.
World War II brought many new technologies that vessels quickly adopted.
Hydraulic controls were installed on vessels especially for steering and for mechanizing gurdies and anchor winches. Navigational aids underwent a number of changes and additions.
The Polaris had its first radiophone in 1936. Radar was installed in 1956. Loran, a terrestrial radio navigation system, was installed in commercial vessels in the late 1940s. After World War II, fathometers determined depth of water. Autopilots were introduced in the 1970s. Again, these were typical improvements to the existing wooden schooners. Today, most fishing vessels have a GPS.
Another consequence of the halibut schooner was the emergence of independently owned boats, replacing company-owned halibut vessels. Company ownership of this type of vessels declined sharply, and independent ownership remains the norm today.
There continues to be good years and bad years for the fleet with periods of fish scarcity and periods of abundance; prices sometimes are good and oftentimes poor; bad weather, good weather; breakdowns, accidents. No matter, the halibut fleet fishes the waters of Alaska.
Keep a watch on the Southeast docks where fish are delivered. Maybe you can see one of these classic, wooden halibut schooners.