Monday, March 16, 2020

The Fate of the Marten at Spruce Cape

The Marten. Photo: Michelle Fisk
The Marten was an 82-foot wooden power scow rigged for crab, a twin shafted boat with a white wheelhouse on the stern of a white hull. A Kodiak fisherman named Jim Fisk had owned and skippered her for years, but in February 1975 he had Jeff Alexander, 21, running the boat with three men on deck- Jim Rich, Mike Rowe, and Deere Alioski. 
After working near Sand Point for several weeks, the boat tied up in Kodiak around four in the afternoon of Thursday, February 20. Around 9:30 p.m. they untied and headed to the Wakefield processing plant in Port Lions, thirty-five miles away.
The Marten's planned route to Port Lions,
according to the Coast Guard.
Courtesy Don Bodron
A 40-knot northeast wind loaded with snow met them as they came out of the channel, passed Jackson’s trailer court and the red Number 10 channel buoy, and aimed for buoy Number 8, a flashing red light moored just east of Channel Rock, 500 yards from the cliffs on Spruce Cape Road. The snow obscured the light however, and the Marten’s radar was suddenly useless too, as snowflakes smothered the scanner. Alexander backed off on the throttle and idled ahead, trying to get his bearings.  
The smell of smoke suddenly diverted the crew’s attention but was determined to be engine exhaust blown back into the wheelhouse by the wind.
Just as Alexander returned to looking for the Number 8 light, the hull bumped hard against something solid and a mass of white water came out of the darkness, a wave breaking over shallow rock. The light they intended to pass on their port side was now somewhere off to starboard, and the rock that should have been even farther away to port was now under the boat. Twenty-foot seas repeatedly dropped the boat on the rock and the hull planks began splintering.
At 10:00 p.m., Alexander called the Coast Guard on the single sideband radio, but the Coast Guard did not hear him. The transmission was picked up instead by a local pilot named Herb Downing from his house near Mill Bay. Downing phoned the Coast Guard and by 10:30 a helicopter was in the air. The 84-foot steel vessel Theresa Marie also heard the call and left the harbor to come to the Marten’s aid
Alexander told Downing they were “off Spruce Cape near the red buoy… in the channel,” meaning the red buoy off Channel Rock. The Coast Guard and the Theresa Marie misunderstood this however, and headed for the Number 4 red swing buoy, a mile and half beyond Channel Rock, off the tip of Spruce Cape. Then Marten’s engine room flooded and the lights and radio died. The boat was invisible in the snowy darkness, and the helo flew past it.
Coast Guard search area and actual wreck site.
Courtesy Don Bodron
 In 1975 survival suits were common but not required, and there were none on the Marten. The crew donned their life jackets. They deployed the life raft off the wheelhouse roof, but it swamped in the breaking surf, and the weight of the water in it prevented the men from pulling it back to the boat against the wind and waves.  
The seas banged the boat across the rock and then rolled it upside down off the rock’s  shoreward side. The fishermen clung to the propeller shafts for forty-five minutes and then, one by one, were swept away.
Alexander and one crewman swam 500 yards to shore, but the crewman died in the surf. Alexander climbed the rock face almost to the top before seizing up. He watched the lights of the Coast Guard helicopter and the Theresa Marie searching out near the swing buoy, until the helo ran out of fuel and went back to the Air Station.
The capsized hull of the Marten at Spruce Cape
February 21, 1975. Photo: Don Bodron
At 2:30 a.m. a policeman found Alexander on the cliff, hypothermic but conscious. The bodies of the three crewmen were recovered along the shoreline the next day.
Alexander told the Coast Guard investigator they were headed for Port Lions to deliver 500 king crabs which they’d picked up from storage on the way into town that day, presumably from crab pots with the tunnels tied shut. He cited the urgency of getting another of Fisk’s boats ready for fishing as the reason for leaving that night, rather than waiting for the storm to subside.
Closeup of the Marten at Spruce Cape, February 21, 1975.
Photo: Don Bodron
Alexander did not mention that King Crab season had been closed for weeks by then, or that fear of being caught with illegal crab in Kodiak might have influenced the decision to make for Port Lions, where enforcement was less likely.
Jim Fisk was in Anchorage that night, and presumably reachable by phone, but whether he talked with Alexander before the boat left for Port Lions, or how much he knew about the boat’s activities before it arrived in Kodiak, is unknown. He died in a car wreck in 1995.
Kodiak Daily Mirror, February 21, 1975.
              KMM archives. 
Jeff Alexander hung around Kodiak for a year or so and then disappeared. In 2006 a Seattle reporter talked to him while doing a story on homeless people. He was on methadone, living in his truck and panhandling in Ballard. He’d done time in prison for drugs and assault and theft, but he showed the reporter a garden he’d built near the bridge. The orderly rows of kale and flowers seemed a minor miracle in an otherwise desperate story of trauma and addiction.
Later that summer, Alexander was jailed for failing to appear on a couple of traffic citations and a theft charge. In September 2006 he fell out of a bunk in the King County jail, broke his neck, and died.
It is impossible and unfair to conjecture on what Alexander’s life might have been had the Marten stayed tied to the dock that February night, or if the other men on the boat had survived. Alexander’s family and friends remembered him as intelligent and kind, a talented young man who could have done anything with his life. But knowing what we know now about the costs of trauma, it is not hard to imagine a trail of cause and effect from that night on Spruce Cape to heroin and panhandling at the foot of the Ballard Bridge. And for sure, not every sea story ends when the wind calms and the sun comes up the next day.

Sources:

Kodiak Daily Mirror, February 21, 1975.
“Report on the Marten.” Don Bodron, former U.S. Coast Guard Investigator
“Blossoms of Hope Wilt Away.” Danny Westneath, Seattle Times, September 24, 2006





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