There are fewer than 20 left of the 150 historic schooners built for Alaska's longline halibut fishery. These survivors will be in the “Highliners: Boats of the Century” exhibit opening at the Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle on Saturday. Some will also be taking part in a parade today on South Lake Union.
I think it's amazing there are any left at all. Think about it. A boat is a piece of technology designed to hunt fish. How much other technology is still around from 100 years ago? Most people consider their iPhones useless if they're older than 6 months.
To find some of their stories, this morning I looked through National Fisherman's archives. As you'll see from the slideshow, a few of these venerable boats have floated through our pages.
In May 2002, for instance, writer William McCloskey joined the Vansee for a weeklong run targeting blackcod in the Gulf of Alaska (with a secondary take of halibut). Per Odegaard ran the 86-footer along with a loyal crew whose most recent member joined five years before and most senior had been with the boat for 17 years. Odegaard's history with the Vansee stretched even further, as he took over the boat in 1982 from his father Nils, who had purchased a part-share in 1960.
In a two-part series published in October and November, McCloskey writes about 16-hour workdays and recounts the history of the schooner. The Vansee was built in 1913 in the John Strand boatyard in Seattle. Like other classic schooners, she was run by Norwegian skippers, whose first fishing was done by a 15-man crew from six dories. In the 1920s the boats switched to the safer deck fishing and dominated the halibut fishery until the free-for-all days of derby fishing in the 1980s.
Those still around may have held onto traditions but also knew they had to change to survive. After the halibut fishery became overrun, the fleet began fishing blackcod in 1983. Odegaard told McCloskey how he came to adopt circle hooks around that same time after reading about them in National Fisherman in 1983. "I tried the circle on just 10 skates. The difference was remarkable — how many more fish came aboard than with our traditional J-hooks. Right away I phoned my dad in Seattle and said get down to the stores first thing.” He bought as many circle hooks as he could find and by 1984 the rest of the fleet had converted from J-hooks to circle.
But the hooks had been around before then, McCloskey asked, why hadn't anyone else in the fleet tried them before?
"The old way had always worked. We're a pretty conservative lot," Odegaard told McCloskey with a smile.
Experienced commercial fishermen like Odegaard understand new is not always better. The longevity of these wooden boats built between 1911 and 1929 is a testament not only to the craftsmanship of the original builders, but also to fishermen who have maintained the vessels that have served them and previous owners well over the years.
Fans of wooden boats will get to see the classics for themselves when some of those still hardworking longliners gather at the Center for Wooden Boats on South Lake Union today at 10 a.m. to celebrate the opening of the exhibit as well as the 100th anniversary of the Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association. Those expected include the Seymour, Vansee, Grant, Polaris, and Resolute, which along with the Republic, Pacific, Thor, Northern, and Tordenskjold, are the present-day schooners highlighted in the exhibit. They may be from the past, but they're not relics.