Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Tragedy of the John and Olaf

Early on the morning of Wednesday, January 16, 1974, John Blaalid, 45, the skipper of the 86 foot shrimp trawler John and Olaf, radioed the Coast Guard to inform them that he and his crew were experiencing heavy icing in Portage Bay, on the Alaska Peninsula, across Shelikof Strait from Kodiak Island. Blaalid reported that winds in excess of a hundred miles an hour and temperatures in the single digits had caused heavy icing on the boat, but believed they could ride out the storm until daylight. At some point after that call the crew managed to anchor the vessel in Jute Bay, a shallow dent in the coastline on the north side of Portage Bay.

Along with Blaalid, originally from Norway, were crewmen Arthur Gilbert, age 47, from Kodiak, Arthur’s son, David, 22, and Ivar Gjerde, a Norwegian national, age unknown. Captain Blaalid called the Coast Guard again sometime between 7:30 and 9:30 that morning, to let them know he and his crew were abandoning ship. While no one knows for sure why they chose to abandon the vessel and get in the raft, conjecture has endured for years on Kodiak’s waterfront that Blaalid and his crew believed the John and Olaf was in imminent danger of capsizing from the weight of the ice on the superstructure and rigging. That was the last radio call from the John and Olaf.
The Coast Guard immediately began an air and sea search to rescue the fishermen in the raft. High winds prevented flights from Air Station Kodiak however, so a C-130 launched from Elmendorf Air Base in Anchorage. Over the Shelikof that evening the pilot encountered extreme turbulence, low visibility and sea spray at 700 feet. They did not see the John and Olaf or its life raft.
The Coast Guard cutter Citrus and the F/V Elizabeth F also tried to reach Portage Bay, but winds in the Shelikof of 80 to 90 knots- 92 to 103 miles an hour- forced the Elizabeth F to abandon the effort. The crabber Virginia Santos and the research vessel Nautilus also joined the search, but the Nautilus remained stuck by 60 knot winds in Katmai Bay, forty miles north of Portage Bay. The Citrus was delayed in getting to Portage Bay after it detoured to escort the F/V Chief into Jap Bay, on Kodiak’s east side, after that vessel’s radar malfunctioned.

On Thursday the 17th a C-130 spotted the John and Olaf about 500 yards from shore in Jute Bay, “still in the water but touching ground.” A photo taken from the plane, of the boat encased almost unrecognizably in ice, ran in newspapers around the world.
The tug Duncan Foss arrived at Jute Bay the next day, and searchers found coffee still in cups on the galley table of the John and Olaf, but no crew. According to longtime Kodiak resident Dick Waddell, who was a crewman on the Foss that winter, and who knew John Blaalid well, “everything was normal, nothing was tipped over like sometimes you get in a storm.”
The crew of the John and Olaf had removed their life raft from its cradle atop the wheelhouse and presumably deployed it alongside the John and Olaf before climbing in. Whether they untied the raft from the vessel deliberately, in the belief that the boat might capsize from the weight of the ice and take them down with it, or if it was torn away from the boat by the wind, or if something else happened, remains a mystery.
What is known is that the hundred mile an hour, 10 degree wind blew the raft out of Jute Bay and into the southern end of Shelikof Strait. On Friday, two days after the crew had abandoned the John and Olaf, the empty life raft was spotted and recovered by the Citrus on Tugidak Island, off the southern end of Kodiak Island, 75 miles southeast of Jute Bay.It is conceivable that the raft was overturned by the wind on the exposed crest of a wave, or tumbled upside down by a breaking sea as it crossed the Shelikof.
In both of those scenarios, the men could have been tossed out into the water, or clambered deliberately out from under the overturned raft. Presumably in survival suits, and thus being low in the water, the sea current may have carried them south, past Tugidak Island, while the life raft, being more exposed to the wind, was carried directly to the island. In any case, the men were never found.
John Blaalid and his partner in the boat, Olaf Wellstein, were Norwegians who had fished for Dick Waddell on his boat the Pacific Pearl before deciding to buy a shrimper of their own. They bought the Ruth McKenzie and renamed it the John and Olaf. Blaalid had recently moved his family from Norway to Kodiak.
Art Gilbert had lived in Kodiak for about nine years and had signed onto the John and Olaf the August before, with his son Tony. David Gilbert, a law student at the University of Oklahoma, had prevailed on his brother Tony to give up his place on the boat for a few weeks after Christmas so he could make money for college.
The John and Olaf remained where it was anchored in Jute Bay for many years, a cautionary hulk which gradually deteriorated before eventually breaking up and disappearing.