Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Lowell Wakefield and the Birth of the Alaska King Crab Fishery

The Alaskan king crab fishery began in the late 1940s and rocketed into legend by the 1960s, fueled by a huge swarm of crab, new fishing and processing technologies, a boisterous fleet of enthusiastic fishermen and processors, and the rising affluence of American consumers.

Those circumstances perhaps made the fishery inevitable, but without Lowell Wakefield, the fishery would likely not have happened as soon, or as explosively as it did, and the history of Alaska would be different. While there were other people present at the advent of the king crab era, Wakefield’s vision made the king crab fishery happen the way it did.

Born in 1909 in Anacortes, Washington, Wakefield was the son of an Alaskan salmon and herring cannery operator with plants at Seldovia and Raspberry Strait, on Kodiak Island. He attended the University of Washington and Columbia, but in his early 20s, instead of following his father to Alaska or going into some other business, he became, like thousands of other young Americans scarred by the Depression and the apparent failure of capitalism, a Communist Party organizer and journalist.

In the early1930s he founded and edited the Voice of Action, the unofficial newspaper of the Northwest Communist Party, based in Seattle, and then wrote for the Daily Worker, the Party’s national newspaper. In 1934 he ran for the Washington State Legislature on the Communist Party ticket.

But then, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Wakefield joined the Navy. When he came back from the war in 1945, he abandoned the Communist cause and headed for his father’s cannery in Raspberry Strait. He landed there just as the big bang of the Alaskan king crab fishery ignited.

Japanese and Russian fishermen had been catching king crab in the Bering Sea since the 1920s with tangle gear, fences of web laid on the sea floor which the crab walked into. Some of this crab, canned at sea, was marketed in the U.S through the 1930s.

Alaskan processors were aware of this fishery and persuaded a few investors, and eventually the U.S. Department of the Interior, to send a catcher vessel, the Dorothy, and a processing ship, the Tondeleyo, to survey for king crab along Alaska’s coast and put into cans whatever crabs they might find. The ships worked for four summers, 1938 to 1941, carrying a crew of scientists, economists and fishermen. Using trawl nets, they found significant concentrations of king crab in the eastern Bering Sea and around Kodiak Island.

Some of the trawls were conducted in Raspberry Strait, right in front of the Wakefield cannery. The expedition left some of its gear on the beach and during the war Lee Wakefield used it to catch crab, which he canned in his plant. But without knowing much about the crab’s habits, or how best to process it, the American king crab fishery, including the effort in Raspberry Strait, went nowhere.

In 1946, with the crab surveys in mind, Lowell Wakefield formed a new company, Deep Sea Trawlers Inc., with a plan to catch and process king crab in the Bering Sea. With capital raised by selling company stock to friends and with a loan from the Federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Wakefield built the Deep Sea, a 140 foot steel trawler. Designed for the heavy weather of the Bering Sea, the Deep Sea carried everything necessary to catch, process, and freeze Alaskan king crab. Frozen food was a new thing in the American marketplace, but Wakefield believed that high quality frozen crab meat would taste better than canned and appeal to consumers.

At first the Deep Sea used trawl nets to catch the crab, just as the Tondelayo had done before the war, but the nets mangled the crab as they were towed on the bottom and crushed them under their own weight as the bag was hoisted to the surface. This didn’t matter if the crab meat was canned, but it was not ideal for Wakefield’s vision of high quality crab legs sitting on someone’s plate in an upscale restaurant. The Deep Sea and other pioneer crabbers began experimenting with baited steel traps, called pots by fishermen, which captured the crab live and unharmed.

The early pots were round, like traditional Dungeness pots, but heavy offshore currents tended to move them around on the bottom and they didn’t fish very well. Fishermen adapted and by the early 1950s the Deep Sea and other catcher boats were using square pots, which stayed put on the bottom. New hydraulic power blocks also came into use, allowing the pots to be hauled faster than the winches fishermen had previously used. The Deep Sea also pioneered the use of radar to find its reflective crab pot buoys, allowing the ship to find its gear far from land. At first the Deep Sea’s crew hand-picked the crab meat out of the shells, a labor intensive effort, until one of Wakefield’s engineers figured out a way to use water and compressed air to push the cooked meat out of the shells. This soon became the industry standard.

Even though Wakefield had had figured out how to catch and process the king crabs, he had a hard time selling it. A wholesale market for frozen crab meat did not exist, and his first sales efforts, through canned salmon distributors, did not go well.

Most restaurants chefs thought giant crab legs were too exotic to put in front of customers until Wakefield convinced a single restaurateur in Atlantic City to put king crab on his menu. People liked the taste and identified eating crab as a status symbol of epicurean sophistication. Other restaurants took notice. Wakefield also put the Deep Sea’s captain on the road between fishing seasons, selling king crab out of a freezer in the trunk of his car.

And then, in a stroke of marketing genius, Wakefield hired Lowell Thomas, a broadcaster and film maker who had made Lawrence of Arabia famous, to produce a film about king crab. Called “Adaq, King of Alaska’s Seas,” the color film showed fishermen hauling crab pots off Kodiak, the crab being processed in the Raspberry Strait plant, and Wakefield and his wife and kids eating piles of king crab at their house behind the processing plant. The film was shown like a newsreel before the feature movie at theaters across the country and slowly at first, and then suddenly, demand for king crab grew.

In the years spent figuring out how to sell crab however, Wakefield very nearly went bust. In the spring of 1949, with zero cash flow and his suppliers howling, Wakefield made a deal with his father’s herring company, Apex Fisheries, to pay the upcoming season’s expenses in return for half of any potential profits. That season, with the new processing and fishing innovations lowering costs and consumers beginning to buy the crab, the company made a profit for the first time. By the early 1950s Deep Sea Inc. was consistently in the black and competing fishermen and processors were piling into the fishery. The boom was on.

At first, the new fishery looked like blue skies and hundred dollar bills forever. No one knew how many crabs were out there, but fishermen caught more of them every year, which to some, indicated an endless supply.

Instead, as the 75 year bell curve of Alaskan crab catches reveals, a familiar story played out- the profit driven harvesting of a finite resource. The Kodiak king crab fishery peaked at 90 million pounds in 1966 and closed entirely in 1983. The Bering Sea catch peaked at 130 million pounds in 1980 and was closed in 2021, though fishermen and managers remain hopeful the fishery will reopen in the near future. King crab still walk the bottom of Alaska’s continental shelf, but biologists and fishery managers believe there aren’t enough of them to sustainably loose a modern fishing fleet upon them.

While Lowell Wakefield did not invent the Alaskan king crab fishery, his practical vision bent its narrative arc in a historically significant way. Revered in his own time as the leading innovator, if not the sole creator of the early king crab industry, he died in 1977 at the age of 68.

What remains a mystery, and perhaps a more intriguing story than the timeline history of the crab fishery, is how and when Wakefield’s world view changed from a worker’s rights Communist in his 20s to a free range entrepreneurial resource capitalist in his mid-30s. Did something particular happen to Wakefield during the war to instigate that change or did he simply outgrow a youthful social idealism as he saw the need to make a living and raise a family? We don’t know, though such a transformation was not unique among people of his generation. Should a future historian find interest in the subject and dive deeper into Wakefield’s papers at the University of Washington, perhaps that fuller story will be revealed.

Friday, February 11, 2022

The Barbarossa and Its High Seas Desperado


In the early morning hours of February 10, 1991, the 98 foot crabber Barbarossa disappeared near the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea, most likely after rolling over with a load of 80 crab pots on deck.  Six men died- skipper George Brandenburg, Dennis Olberding, Tim Schmitt, Darryl Gross, Brian McPherson, and Don Bright. Brandenburg, Olberding, and Schmitt were long time Kodiak fishermen and their loss still cuts deep in this community whose fortune is bound so tightly to the sea, and for which it has paid so dearly with the lives of its fishermen. They were good men who died young, undeserving of their fate.

But there is more to the story of the Barbarossa than its instability or the loss of six men, as tragic as those deaths were. In a strange and circumstantial reminder that nothing is certain at sea, and that fate is an invisible hunter, two crewmen got off the boat only hours before she sank, and were replaced by two unluckier men. The boat’s engineer, Dave Mathison, broke his wrist shortly before the last trip, and the cook, Rodney Horning, was put ashore on St. Paul Island after an argument with the skipper. Even more bizarrely, Rodney Horning was actually Danny Ray Horning, previously convicted of molesting his daughter and fleeing from a California murder charge to the wilds of the Bering Sea.

The story of how Horning came to be on the Barbarossa began the previous September, when an angler fishing in a river near Stockton, California hooked a trash bag containing the dismembered leg of a local catfish farmer and sometime marijuana dealer named Sammy McCullough. Police later found Mr. McCullough’s torso, severed head and arms, and the steak knife he was cut up with in the same river. He had been shot in the head with a .22 caliber rifle.

McCullough had previously been robbed of a large sum of money, presumably related to his marijuana business, and had testified against Danny Ray Horning’s brother Steven, who did time in prison for the crime. Police matched the slug found in McCullough’s forehead with a .22 caliber rifle belonging to Danny Ray, but by then he’d had skipped to parts unknown.

Five months later, a few days after the Barbarossa went down, Danny Ray Horning, still calling himself Rodney Horning, told an Anchorage reporter about his near miss on the Barbarossa. He claimed the boat was unsafe and that he’d quit after quarreling with skipper Brandenburg over a bowl of mushroom soup. Mathison the engineer would later maintain that Horning had been fired for being incompetent and lazy, and that he’d threatened to kill Brandenburg.

On March 22, 1991, six weeks after the Barbarossa rolled over, Horning was arrested in Winslow, Arizona, coming out of a bank with $25,000 of other people’s money, a hostage bank manager, and a 9mm pistol registered to the previously murdered Sammy McCullough. At trial, Horning bragged that no prison could hold him and taunted the judge to give him the maximum sentence. The judge obliged with four consecutive life sentences for robbery, kidnapping, and assault. With Horning apparently on ice for the rest of his life, California authorities declined to extradite him for the McCullough murder, a decision they would long regret.

In May 1992, Horning escaped from the Arizona state prison in Florence, and led lawmen on a 54 day chase across Arizona and New Mexico. Along the way, he burglarized houses for food, guns, and money, robbed another bank, hid out in the Grand Canyon, and carjacked a number of people, including two female British grad students in a rental car. He let them all go unharmed after cheerfully regaling them with tales of his exploits, minus the parts about child molestation and dismembered bodies.

Danny Ray Horning after his capture in July 1992

When police finally caught him asleep under a porch with a 44 magnum revolver in his hands, he told his captors that “It was really a fun chase. I wish I could do this every week.”

Horning was eventually extradited to California and sentenced to death for the murder of Sammy McCullough. He has been on San Quentin’s Death Row since 1995.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

The Wreck of the Selendang Ayu, December 2004

Flight Mechanics on Coast Guard helicopters, the people who hang out the door and run the rescue hoist, wear a gunner’s harness to keep from falling out, with a buckle that, depending on which way you put the harness on, can be released with either hand. The Coast Guard doesn’t care which way a mechanic puts the harness on, but Brian Lickfield put his on the same way for every flight for 17 years, against the day when that might matter and his hand would hit the release without thinking, and he would swim away from a sinking helicopter, and live.  

Eastern Bering Sea

In December 2004, the 738 foot freighter Selendang Ayu was carrying 66,400 tons of soybeans across the Bering Sea on a great circle route from Seattle to Xiamen, China. Commanded by a 52 year old Indian national named Kailash Singh, the ship had 26 officers and men.

On December 6, 100 miles northwest of Dutch Harbor, the ship’s engine shut down, the result of cracked rings in cylinder number three. As the ship’s engineers worked unsuccessfully to get the engine going again, the weather deteriorated, towing attempts by the Coast Guard and a commercial tug failed, and the ship drifted southeast toward Unalaska Island. By the morning of December 8, the ship was five miles from shore in a 60 knot northwest wind and 30 foot seas. The Coast Guard launched two Kodiak based H60s Jayhawks from Cold Bay to get the crew off.
Selendang Ayu drift route

Selendang Ayu aground on Unalaska Island

When the helicopters arrived, they found the sailors disorganized, panicked, and not at all sure they wanted to be hoisted into a howling winter storm off a ship that was not yet sinking. Perhaps not fully appreciating the situation, several got into the basket with their suitcases. By 3 p.m. however, with the ship now less than a mile from shore, the two H60s had each rescued nine sailors.

The first helicopter, CG number 6020, lowered its nine its sailors to the cutter Alex Haley, which was standing by a mile away. The other H60 CG number 6021 flew to a rendezvous point on Unalaska Island, transferred its passengers to the first helicopter, and flew to Cold Bay, where it was grounded with mechanical problems. The first H60 then flew Dutch Harbor, unloaded the rescued sailors, refueled, and flew back to get the ship’s eight remaining crewmembers.

In sea and wind conditions far outside the Coast Guard’s usual parameters, the Alex Haley launched its own H65 Dolphin to fly backup.

At 5 p.m., with daylight fading, the ship grounded on a reef a thousand feet from the breakers at Skan Bay.

Brian Lickfield, the Flight Mechanic on the returning H60, would later tell a reporter, “I flew for sixteen years before this happened, and that was the worst conditions I've ever seen. It was just crazy- snowing, blizzard conditions and thirty, forty foot seas.”

Co-pilot Doug Watson, sitting in the right seat, held the helicopter above the port side of the ship’s bow, but as Lickfield lowered the hoist, blue bolts of static electricity generated by the rotors arced from the basket to the ship. The terrified sailors refused to get into the basket.

The rescue swimmer, Aaron Bean, went down to straighten things out. Gesturing, cajoling, and tossing suitcases aside, Bean had just put the seventh man in the basket when, pilot Dave Neel saw a wave larger than any wave he had ever seen coming out of the darkness. He took the controls from Watson and pulled the machine up as fast as he could make it go.

A hundred feet above the ship’s deck cranes, Lickfield had just pulled the seventh sailor into the cabin when the wave struck the side of the ship, transferred its mass and energy vertically, and engulfed the helicopter in sea water. The windshield went white with sea foam and Lickfield hollered “We’ve got water in the cabin sir! Up! Up! Up!”

Alarms sounded and red lights came on and the engines spooled down with the diminishing whine of a train whistle going away. Watson pushed the nose down to fly out of the problem, but there was no power to fly anywhere. The helicopter fell.

The torque in the main rotor spun the airframe counterclockwise, slamming the tail into the side of the ship, immediately followed by the main rotor blades, which shattered on the ship’s rail. Rescue swimmer Bean and Captain Singh, the last sailor on the ship, crouched as pieces of steel ricocheted around them.

Watson’s attempt to fly had helped however, and the helicopter hit the water at somewhere between a crash and a landing.

Years later Lickfield would tell an interviewer, “You never think there’s really going to be a situation where you just crash in a helicopter… but you better hope it's really a crash because I'm leaving. Right?”

As the fuselage rolled over and the cabin filled with water, Lickfield grabbed the edge of the door, instinctively hit the release on the right side of the gunners belt he had put on the same way every time for 17 years, pulled himself though the door, and swam for the surface.

Neel and Watson swam out of the cockpit and the H65 flying backup hoisted them and Lickfield and a crewman from the ship, who came up with the hoist cable wrapped around his neck, unconscious but alive. The other six sailors were never found. The H65 flew the survivors to Dutch Harbor.

Just after 7 p.m., the Selendang Ayu split in half, with Aaron Bean and Captain Singh still standing on the bow. At 8:30 p.m. the H65 returned and hoisted them off the wreck.

On the Dutch Harbor tarmac that night, as Lickfield walked away from the H65 that had pulled him out of the water, he saw the CG number on its side, number 6513, and realized it was the same helicopter he had qualified in as a flight mechanic, in 1992. It had been rebuilt at least once, but it was the same airframe.

Selendang Ayu aground and broken in half 
at Skan Bay, Unalaska Island, December 2004

Over the next few weeks, the ship broke up, spilling its cargo of soybeans and 440,000 gallons of fuel oil into the sea, prompting an expensive cleanup operation. The ship’s surviving crew went back to India and the Philippines and China and the Coast Guard people who rescued them went back to work. The rescue remains one of the most logistically complicated operations the Coast Guard ever attempted.


Coast Guard helicopter CG 6020 on the beach
at Skan Bay, Unalaska Island, December 2004


National Transportation Safety Board Selendang Ayu Marine Accident Brief, September 2006

Selendang Ayu Incident: After Action Review USCG MSA Anchorage 7/31/2005

Underwater Egress Handbook for U.S. Coast Guard Aviation Personnel

The Edge of Survival, 2010, by Spike Walker

Interview with Brian Lickfield, November 2021