Thursday, January 8, 2015

1966: High Water Mark of the Kodiak King Crab Fishery

Driven by a generation of ambitious and energetic men, the Kodiak king crab fishery in the 1960's was booming. In 1965, in a ten month season that ran from July 1st to May 1st, Kodiak fishermen delivered 94 million pounds of crab worth $12 million- about eight cents a pound. It was the biggest crab year Kodiak would ever see, and catches declined steadily thereafter until the fishery petered out in 1982. But the price kept going up- in 1966 it was 10 cents a pound, which came out to about a dollar per ten pound crab. Spread though a fleet of a hundred boats and a town of less than 10,000 people, that was serious money, and the getting of it encouraged fishermen to push the limits of both themselves and the technology of the time.

King Crab Fishing on the St. Mary II, late 1970s
(Kodiak Maritime Museum)
What “pushing the limits,” often meant was carrying as many pots on deck as possible. The pots weighed up to seven hundred pounds apiece, however, and every boat had a magic number of crab pots which could be safely loaded on deck without rolling over. Knowing what that magic number was, and carrying just one or two pots less than that number, was a life and death calculation, and all too often fishermen calculated wrong.

Another factor in a boat’s stability was the use of live tanks full of fresh circulating sea water to keep the crabs alive. Ten years before, fishermen had carried the crabs back to the processing plants stacked on deck or in dry fish holds, but this limited how far from town they could fish, because the crabs died after a few hours out of the water. With below-decks tanks full of seawater, crabs could be kept alive for up to two weeks, which made possible the exploitation of crab grounds far from town. The down side was that if the pumps failed, the water in the tank could drop to the level of the sea around the hull, creating a “slack tank.” When the water in a slack tank sloshed back and forth as the boat rolled, the center of gravity heaved from one side of the boat to the other, potentially rolling the boat over.

If those were the obvious risks of fishing year round in the Gulf of Alaska, there were plenty of other less foreseeable ways for things to go wrong. Even an ordinarily safe number of pots on deck could ice up from freezing spray, creating enough weight on deck to roll a boat over. A hull plank could come loose, a through hull fitting or the shaft stuffing box could fail, or the boat could simply fill up with water from “unknown causes.”

But a buck a crab tempted people to sometimes weigh those risks incautiously, and in those years before survival suits, life rafts, and emergency position locator beacons, when the boat went down, usually so too did the crew.

For many fishermen, the solution to the problem of safely carrying more crab pots was to get a bigger boat. Up until 1966, the bigger boats Kodiak fishermen brought into the crab fishery were designed for other fisheries- salmon seining, or Dungeness crab fishing, or California sardine and tuna seining. These were mostly wooden hulled, and none were designed to carry the dozens of steel crab pots on deck the new fishery demanded.

In 1966 that changed, and it was then, at the apex year of the Kodiak king crab fishery, that the stories of two boats, one a heroic triumph, the other an unmitigated tragedy, defined the range of what was possible in the Kodiak crab fishery.

Oscar Dyson and Seldon "Nellie," Nelson,
in the wheelhouse of the Peggy Jo, 1966
(Peggy Dyson photo)
In 1965, two long time Kodiak fishermen,
Oscar Dyson and Seldon “Nellie,” Nelson,
contracted with Martinolich Shipbuilding Corporation in Tacoma to build a 99 foot steel boat, specially designed for the king crab fishery by naval architect B.F. Jensen. When the Peggy Jo was launched in the spring of 1966, it had a flared bow to ride up and over big winter waves, was wide and deep enough to provide a stable working platform in heavy seas, and incorporated two crab tanks which could hold 156,000 lbs of crab. The deck was huge- the boat could carry 90 seven-by-seven pots at a time, stacked three high. When the Peggy Jo arrived in Kodiak in the early summer of 1966 she defined state of the art for crab boats, and in the next two decades hundreds of boats would be built following the general design parameters pioneered by the Peggy Jo- deep
The Peggy Jo on sea trials.
Puget Sound, April 1966
(Peggy Dyson photo)
hull, flared bow, a wide flat deck for carrying lots of crab pots, and a crane.

That same summer another boat, the Madre Dolorosa, “The Mother of Sorrow,” a 58 foot steel limit seiner, built three years before in the same shipyard yard as the Peggy Jo, untied in Kodiak and headed down the west side of the island with a load of crab pots. The next day, August 14, 1966, a mail plane spotted her floating off Cape Karluk, upside down and stern up, with no sign of life. The plane radioed the cannery in Larsen Bay, which sent a tender out to tow the Madre into Larsen Bay. On the way, the boat sank in 25 fathoms of water off Harvester Island. Most Kodiak fishermen have long assumed that the Madre had too many pots on deck when it rolled over off Karluk.

Lost on the Madre were skipper Don Vinson, 38, from Kodiak, his two sons, Boyd, 17, and Billy, age 12, and two crewmen, Ron Winberg, 24 of Seattle, and James White of Bellingham. Three of the bodies were found later inside the hull.

In the spring of 1967, Don Vinson’s business partner, a radar technician named Murray Gellis, hired diver Bob Moody to raise the boat. Moody scrounged five big cooker pots from the Shearwater cannery in Shearwater Bay, on the east side of Kodiak Island, to use as flotation tanks to raise the boat. After a month of nudging the Madre up a little at a time, Moody got the boat against the dock in Larsen Bay, where he pumped it out and welded up a seam which had burst when the boat had slammed into the bottom the previous August.

Murray Gellis tanner crab fishing on the Madre Dolarosa
Chignik, Alaska, about 1980 (Dave Gellis photo)
Murray Gellis had never fished before, but he bought out Don Vincent’s widow, refurbished the boat, and fished king and tanner crab around Kodiak and in the Bering Sea until the late 1970s. Even in a town already deckloaded with colorful characters, he stood out. Born in the Bronx, he carried the accent of that place his whole life. In later years he would regale his crewmembers with stories of shipping out as a 17 year old Merchant Marine radio operator in the early days of World War II, making convoy runs across the North Atlantic to the ice free Russian port of Murmansk, and watching as ships were torpedoed by German U-boats. He died of cancer in the early 1980s.

The Madre Dolorosa was sold by Murray’s widow after his death, and has worked as a Puget Sound purse seiner for many years.

Oscar Dyson continued his long career as a high line fisherman and industry leader. He died in 1995 in an automobile accident in Kodiak. For years he moored the Peggy Jo to the dock on the east side of the small boat harbor in Kodiak, until the dock eventually became known as “Oscar’s Dock,” at first informally, and then officially, with a plaque about Oscar embedded there. In 2003, in honor Oscar's long service on behalf of the fishing industry, the 208 foot NOAA research vessel Oscar Dyson was launched, and continues to work in the North Pacific and Bering Sea.  "Nellie” Nelson moved to Washington State and died a few years after Oscar.

In 2006 The Peggy Jo was sold to B&N Fisheries, an independent processing group headed by Joe Bundrant, the son of Chuck Bundrant, a founder of Trident Fisheries. The vessel continues to operate as a trawler in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea.

This story, by Kodiak Maritime Museum Executive Director Toby Sullivan, first appeared in the Kodiak Daily Mirror November 11, 2014.