Sunday, October 25, 2009


Anacortes, Washington will always stand out in my memory as the town where I got on my first ship as a licensed officer.  She was the M/V Makaka, a 110 foot salmon tender.  It was August 1981 and the ink was still wet on my 3rd Mate's license and after all the months of studying and taking the exams I was broke and needed to go back to work.  Dennis Heeney came through for me and referred me to Ocean Beauty Seafoods who need a chief mate to replace a man who was quitting before the end of the salmon season.  So I arrived on the docks on the north end of town, on Guemes Channel, with my seabag and my license in hand.

The departing mate met me on the dock.

"Good luck on there.  He can't handle the boat fer shit.  Every time he gets near the dock he does the 'Makaka Mambo'.  He's all over the place."

With those reassuring words about my new captain's capacity as a boat handler I climbed aboard.  The captain was an older gent with a beard.  He asked me if I had any boots or rain gear.  I did not.  He sent me off to Marine Supply & Hardware where I got myself a pair of crotch-high wading boots and a full yellow rain slicker and a pair of orange rubber insulated gloves.  The next morning we set sail up the Inside Passage en route to the Alaskan village of Klawock.

The route was one I'd traveled many times before, but this was the first time I was in charge of the navigation watch and alone on the bridge.  I was sailing solo for the first time.  We sailed up Rosario Straits, past the San Juan Islands and into the wide waters of the Straits of Georgia, past Texada Island, through Sabine Channel.  We passed log tows, log carrying freighters bound for the far east, and large tugs towing tandem wood chip barges en route to the paper mills.  As we approached Campbell River we slowed and waited for slack tide to make the passage through Seymour Narrows.  Currents can reach up to 16 kts in Seymour and it was nothing to be trifled with by a small ship only capable of 9 kts.  We loitered south of Cape Mudge watching the water boil with the current flowing out of Discovery Passage.

Most of the names along this route were given by the explorers on the expedition of Captain George Vancouver in 1792.  It has always seemed to me that Capt Vancouver was a rather depressed chap.  The names he gave some of the places in the NW and BC include: Useless Bay; Point No Point; Deception Pass; Desolation Sound, and the like.  But his legacy of exploration is indelibly etched upon the Inside Passage.

Once the currents subsided we joined the other vessels that had been awaiting the turn of the tide and made our way up Discovery Passage towards Seymour Narrows.  Inevitably we met southbound traffic that had been holed up north of the narrows awaiting slack water.  All the vessels squeezed through the slalom course of the narrows.

Seymour Narrows is like the portal to the North Land.  From this point northward we were enveloped in the green forest darkness of the wilderness.  The towns were smaller and fewer, the currents stronger and waters deep, cold, and dark blue.  We passed Helmcken Island passing to the right through Current Passage, the current now boiling and pushing us along at almost 12 kts.  I always liked the color coded navigation lights that guide one through Current Pass, showing red to indicate danger until the ship reaches the bearing where it is safe to turn and light shows white.

From there we proceeded to Blackney Pass and on to Pine Island and Cape Caution and up the channel past the fishing outpost of Namu and Fog Rocks and into Lama Pass.  There we passed the native village of Bella Bella and Dryad Point Lighthouse.  Then past the Milbanke Sound, where we felt the swells entering from the Pacific Ocean.  Then we entered Princess Royale Channel and passed the ghost town of Butedale and then proceeded up the long narrow misty Grenville Channel.

I had the watch here and it was a pitch black night.  On the radar, the Grenville extended like a narrow crack in the mountains and forest, leading onward ahead for miles.  I turned on the searchlight and shone it on the bank to my right.  The trees were so close it scared me.  I swung around the light to the left bank and those trees weren't that much further away. I decided I was better off with the light off, and continued to steam ahead by the flash of the radar and the occasional twinkle of a lighted navigation mark as we passed them.  It was a long, quiet, lonely watch, sailing through the Grenville.  The next morning we past Prince Rupert and made our way north crossing Dixon Entrance and into Ketchikan.

As the previous mate had warned me the captain struggled to put the boat alongside the wharf in Ketch.  To and fro revving the engines and lots of hollering and finally we were alongside.  We tied up to the NEFCO-Fidalgo Salmon cannery and took on stores, fuel and cash.  We were a cash buyer for the Cannery.  We would head out to the fishing grounds and buy fish directly from the fisherman.

The next morning in a drizzle, under a heavy gray overcast, we headed south to make our way around Cape Chacon and then up Cordova Bay to Tlevak Strait, a narrow rock strewn passage between wild wooded islands.  Low wispy stratus clouds lingered on the hillsides touching the treetops.

The channel narrowed and the current picked up.  We had missed slack water at Tlevak Narrows and the captain decided to run it anyway or we would be late arriving in Klawok.  As we approached the narrows we could see the buoys laid over on their sides with large wakes coming off of them as the water rushed through the narrow passage.  The boat was flying now, we were doing 16 knots!  The channel makes an almost 90 degree turn and the captain put the helm over hard.  The little ship came about smartly and the current caught the stern and we kept on coming and it looked like we were headed right at the bank.  The captain frantically spun the wheel as the ship laid over on her starboard in a 15 degree roll.  Suddenly the rudder caught, the ship[ righted herself and we swung away from the rocky shore and back into the channel.  Then we shot out the west side of the narrows and rapidly slowed as the current dropped off.

We sailed north past salmon seiners and arrived off of Klawock.  We anchored and seiners began tying up to us.  We set up our yard and stay cargo gear and rigged a brailer net and a scale on the hook to load the salmon into our chilled brine tanks.  I took my first shift running the cargo gear.  I'd swing the brailer down to the hold of the seiner and the fisherman would sort and toss the salmon (most of which were pink salmon, or "humpies") into the brailer.  When it was full, I hoisted it over the deck, noted the weight, swung it over the brine tank and dumped the salmon.  After 12 hours of this operation the deckhand relieved me. I was exhausted and went off to bed.  After 3 days we were full and headed back to the cannery in Ketchikan.  There they used a fish pump to unload us.  The humpies were pretty much worse for wear after their time in our tank and going through the fish pump, guts hanging out, flesh falling off, some of them green and discolored.  They all went up the conveyor into the cannery to be canned and cooked.  It was a long time after that experience before I was able to eat canned salmon ... and I still regard it with suspicion.

After a few weeks the salmon season was over and we steamed south to Seattle and in through the Lake Washington Ship Canal locks and tied up in Ballard.

An interactive Google map of the Inside Passage is available at:

Saturday, October 24, 2009

November 15, 1980

Heading north as AB Seaman on the M/V Pribilof.  It was my first time aboard the ship.  She was an older 220 foot coastal freighter in the Western Alaska trade, running from Seattle to Sand Point, Dutch Harbor, and the Pribilof Islands. The ship carried general cargo northbound and frozen seafood southbound.

I was hired by Dennis Heeney the friendly, good-natured hiring manager for the Alaska Marine Shipping Company.  His son Gary was an oiler on the ship and we became friends.  Gary died 8 years later in the sinking of the F/V ARTIC II off the north side of Akutan Island where I had nearly met a possibly similar fate in 1972.  His body was found months later in his survival suit washed up on the coast of Siberia.

But in November 1980 Gary and I were shipmates and headed north out of Seattle with a full load of freight mostly destined to the isolated Pribilof Islands in the middle of the Bering Sea.  The Chief Mate was the charismatic Bob Underhill.  Bob was a natural leader and everyone took to him immediately.  A tow boat captain by background, he was also quite a wild man.  It was rumored that he had been married anywhere from 9 to 14 times, and as the stories went, sometimes before he was divorced from the last one.

The captain was a recently retired USCG captain who had got his Merchant Marine captain's license and was new to the industry.  As a result he was not very comfortable with the inside passage of British Columbia and Alaska, the sometimes tortuous, winding, rocky set of protected channels leading from Puget Sound to Cape Spencer, Alaska. The ship made it's way northward up the Straits of Georgia, through the strong currents of Seymour Narrows.  The captain seemed visibly ill at ease with the narrow rocky waters of the passage.

In the winter months it is general practice for smaller vessels to follow the inside passage as far north as possible to avoid the huge storms that come roaring across the Gulf of Alaska. Depending on the latitude the storms are tracking across the the Gulf, one can choose to enter the Gulf at any of a number of openings along the inside passage.  In general the worse the weather, the farther north most captains would go, until they reached Cape Spencer, where they would either make the dash across the Gulf when the weather allowed, or else they anchored and waited for a weather window to open before committing themselves to the crossing.

Our captain didn't like the inside passage and when we got to Dixon Entrance, half way up the passage he decided to head out across the Gulf. We steamed out of Dixon Entrance as darkness fell and headed directly into the teeth of the worst storm I have ever experienced in my life.  The winds and seas built as the evening went on and when I came on watch at midnight we were in 30 foot seas with sustained 65 knot winds shrieking through the rigging.  The winds continues to build.  The air was full of wind-blown spume, and the white crests of the waves were glowing in the darkness, rising above the horizon. The winds rose to 85 knots, now sounding like a hellish roar and the ship was being tossed about like a toy.  The waves were huge towering masses of frothing sea over 40 feet high.  I was on the helm and it was all I could do to keep the ship headed into the seas.  We no longer making headway and were being driven backward by the tremendous force of the storm.

We suddenly took a heavy roll to starboard , were slammed hard by a huge wave and thrown hard over port, taking a 50 degree roll.  The captain and the chief mate both cried out at once...  part of the deck cargo had shifted.  Some large bundles pipe had slid to port and were in danger of falling over the side.

They decided they needed to secure the cargo.  The chief mate roused the rest of the deck crew and the captain ordered me to bring the ship about in order to give the crew a lee out on the deck.  He had to wait for a pause in the rhythm of the waves to have us come about without laying the ship on her beam-ends. Then I gave her hard left rudder and he gave full power on the starboard engine and we rolled heavily and came about headed down seas.

Now we were in real danger as we were headed with the seas and the seas were huge and moving much faster than we were and threatened to overpower the rudder and the engines and cause us to broach and capsize.  The mate and deckhands were scrambling across the deck cargo, slinging chains and binders and doing their best to re-secure the pipes.  The captain was at the throttles and I was at the wheel.  I would call out when I lost steerage and he would twist the ship with engines, full ahead on the port, backing the starboard until I regained control.  Every now and again a particularly huge wave would pick up our stern and we could feel the ship careening like a 220 foot long out of control surfboard, rushing down the wave, until it overtook us and then we fell back over the crest of the wave, back into the deep trough below, until the next oncoming monster flung itself upon out stern sweeping me out of control off to the left or the right.  So we struggled to keep control of the ship while the men scrambled precariously on wet slippery containers and pipes, lashing the cargo.

Finally the cargo was re-lashed and we were able to come back around and head into the seas.  The seas were unbelievably huge and the air was filled with spray and foam.   The wind was gusting over 100 knots and never went below 85.  Abruptly, we noticed the night sky clearing and we could see stars in the sky and the wind became variable, dropping down to 25 knots and veering about.  It was a very strange and eerie thing.  We realized the eye of the storm was passing directly over us.  We didn't have long.  After about 20 minutes, the opposite wall of the eye arrived and slammed into us with full force ... sustained winds of 90 knots, gusting over 120knots.  Our anemometer only reached 120 and it was pegged for minutes at a time.

On 2182 kHz we heard other vessels in trouble.  Far to the north of us, near Yakutat Bay,  the Tug Taurus with two barges astern, was being swept toward a lee shore and had to cut it's barges loose in order to save their lives.  One barge capsized and both were washed up onto the shores of Yakutat Bay.

Gradually the weather subsided and we continued on our way, having survived and been given the gift of experiencing the true awe of natures force.  The storm we survived was exactly 8 years to the day after the grounding, distress, and rescue of the Jarvis.

This was to be the last voyage of the Pribilof as a freighter.  The company went bankrupt and the vessel was later sold and became a fish processor.

A week later, while offloading freight to landing craft late at night, off of St. Paul Island, I watched as Bob Underhill lost his balance, reached out and grabbed a cargo strap.  It came loose in his hand and in slow motion, he toppled to his left and fell 35 feet, down into an open hold.  He fell on his side in between a pallet of Rainier Beer and a forklift.

Bob was medevaced first to the island in a landing craft, and the next day to Anchorage by plane.  He sustained 8 broken ribs, a smashed pelvis and a fractured skull.  He didn't remember anything from noon the day of the accident, until 10 days later.  Bob slowed down a lot after that, and never really returned to sailing.  Last I heard he and his wife had moved to the Florida Keys and we lost touch....

An interactive Google map of the Inside Passage is available at:

Friday, October 23, 2009

Boot Sailor in the school of hard knocks

Boot camp was a rude surprise for a sheltered 18 year old. I thought it was going to be tough, but I really had no idea. They cut off all my hair, confiscated all my possessions, gave me an ill fitting uniform and yelled at us all the time. They awoke us at 4:30 in the morning to assemble and run until the weaker amongst us fell to the side vomiting.

The psychological stress was too much for some. There were even a few suicides and many attempts at escape by unhappy recruits. Spring and summer of 1971 in Cape May, New Jersey was a real challenge. I was held back because I couldn't pass the swimming test and the perfect push up test. Eventually I hardened up enough to make it and graduated.

My first ship was the USCGC Jarvis. A 378 ft High Endurance Cutter. When they assembled us in Hawaii, the ship wasn't yet complete. We all joined the Jarvis Pre-Commissioning Detail on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. We were surrounded by history. Ford island is ringed with the wrecks of ships sunk in the Japanese attack that set off WWII for the USA.

The USCG being the poor cousin of the USN, they gave us a set of condemned Navy barracks near the mouth of Pearl Harbor as our quarters. We cleaned them up and painted them and when we left, they looked so good the Navy took them off the condemned list.

Finally in November 1971 we all loaded onto C-141 transports and flew to New Orleans to crew up the ship.

We set sail down the Mississippi River and out to sea, headed to Baltimore for more yard modifications. On the way I got my first chance as a Seaman Apprentice to steer the ship. The Jarvis had a stick type tiller and no wheel and jet engines and diesels for propulsion. It was exhilarating to steer the ship and I excelled at it. The Chief Quartermaster noticed and I was offered a position as "Quartermaster Striker". I would be mentored, trained, and prepared to become a Quartermaster.

Quartermasters were the skilled helmsman, navigators, and keepers of the log aboard Coast Guard Cutters. We were always at the heart of the action. We worked in the nerve center of the ship; the bridge. It was intoxicating and at times intimidating. For me it was the best place to be.

After Baltimore we sailed through the Panama Canal and into the port of San Diego and on to Honolulu.

We were deployed on Ocean Station November, sitting in the middle of the Pacific Ocean between the US West Coast and Hawaii, scanning the skies with our air-search radar, giving positions to overflying commercial aircraft and gathering weather data. We were also there in case any aircraft had an emergency and in case any unfriendly aircraft tried to enter our airspace.

It had 16 years since the last time an aircraft had to ditch at Ocean Station November, the aircraft had superior navigation systems compared to what we had, and Russians weren't coming this way. So it was solitary and obsolete mission that was eventually replaced by an ocean weather buoy.

Finally in November 1972 we embarked upon an exciting mission... Alaska Patrol, or as we called it "ALPAT". We made a grand tour of Alaska, pulling into Ketchikan, Juneau, Anchorage, and Cold Bay. Then on the dark early morning of November 15, 1972 while at anchor in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, we were hit by williwaw winds, drug anchor and struck the bottom off of Rocky Point and started taking on water. I was just getting out of my bunk to relieve the watch ( I had the 0400 to 0800) when I felt the ship shudder and heard the horrible sounds of rocks against steel, grinding down the length of the ship.

The ship limped over to the shelter of a nearby bay and the engineers put a concrete patch on the hole in the engine room. Hoses and pumps were rigged running out the stairwell from the engine room and down the passageway and out over the side.

The District ordered us to break off the patrol and head to Hawaii for repairs. Late that night we headed through Akutan Pass headed south, headed for Hawaii. Events interceded. We ended up in 30 foot seas with 60 knot winds. The vessel was pounding trying to make headway. The patch broke loose and water came pouring into the engine room. Within short order we lost fuel pressure to all the engines as the electric fuel oil pumps shorted out in the deluge of water down in the bilges. Then we were adrift, beam to the seas, only 10 miles from the rocks of Battery Point on the south side of Akutan Island. The winds and seas were rapidly sweeping us northward towards the rocks and disaster.

"MAYDAY, MAYDAY, this is the US Coast Guard Cutter Jarvis!" crackled the radio with the voice of our radio operators calling for help. I had a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach hearing these words. We were in real trouble.

The nearest ship was a Soviet trawler. He refused to come without permission from Moscow. The next nearest ship was a large Japanese factory trawler. They were headed for us at full speed, but were hours away.

The deck crew rigged a makeshift sea anchor using a canvas winch cover to slow the ship's drift towards the rocks. All the life rafts were lowered from their racks down to the deck ready for easy launching.

The ship's Sikorsky HH-52 helicopter was to be used to start evacuating the crew to the island. A list was drawn up, the youngest were to go first. The entire helicopter crew loaded up into the helo and the helideck crew prepped it for take off. The ship was rolling heavily and after the straps were let go the helo started to slide off the helideck and barely managed to get airborne as it skimmed the waves and disappeared into the raging darkness of the Aleutian night. After searching the shore of Akutan Island with the helo's search light the pilot found a spot to set down. Then all of the helo crew except the pilot and co-pilot scrambled out of the chopper and it took off, headed back to the ship.

As the helo made it's way across the water to the ship it encountered a hail storm. Hail in a single turbine engine is not a good thing. The captain called them over the radio and ordered them to abort. They returned to the island. In the pitch darkness of the night, all of the rock strewn beaches of the Aleutians look the same. The pilots couldn't find where they had dropped off their crew. They circled back and forth for a while until finally the crew on the beach managed to start a signal fire. They set down and spent a cold night on the beach in their bird.

Meantime, the water continued to rise in the engine room and our P-250 pumps couldn't keep up and we were running low on gasoline for the pumps.

USCG Air Station Kodiak had scrambled a C-130 aircraft with a load of pumps and gasoline to airdrop us. They came in over us at mast level and dropped pumps to us. The pumps were in round canisters suspended from small parachutes. They splashed in the water close aboard. The deck crew desperately tried to hook them, throwing their grappling hooks again and again. The high winds caught the parachutes and the pumps took off like little water skiers into the night. Finally the C-130 crew was down to a 55 gallon drum of gasoline and they decided to drop it free fall on to our helideck. I joined the recovery crew in the hanger as the big plane buzzed us yet again. The barrel came flying across the deck in a shower of sparks and landed in the port side helideck net. The drum was leaking, but intact.

Even with the extra gasoline didn't help our pumps keep up. The engine room flooded until the water was level with the water on the outside of the hull. The tops of the diesels were visible poking out of 14 feet of disgusting looking water mixed with oil and broken bits of asbestos.

We continued to drift closer to Battery Point. Finally when we were only 3 miles from the rocks, the Japanese trawler arrived on scene, passed a messenger line with a line throwing gun, and took us in to tow. They slowly towed us to Beaver Inlet on the East side of Unalaska Island. There, in daylight, in more sheltered waters, we anchored. Within hours all manner of USCG assets converged upon our location. The USCGC Ironwood came alongside and helicopters from Air Station Kodiak came in doing vertical replenishment, bringing in pumps and hoses and supplies. A canvas patch was pulled over the hole in the engine room and eventually a team of underwater divers arrived to put a hard patch on the gash.

I learned a lot from this experience. I learned how to handle fear, crisis, and disaster, and I also learned that even on the worst day at sea, I felt more alive than I ever did in any other kind of job. As perverse as it may be, this intense experience actually solidified my tendency to be a sailor.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Opening Blog

No one in my family before me was a sailor. I came by it through a happy accident of travel.

In the late 1950's, when I was about 4 years old my parents took me and my infant brother on a voyage aboard a freighter from San Francisco to Yokohama, Japan. We moved there to live for a couple years while my father studied and traveled all over the Far East.

Later we returned to the USA on the same ship, the SS Old Colony Mariner. Built in 1952 she was a C4-S-1a Mariner Class steam powered freighter, operated by Pacific Far East Lines. She was scrapped in 1980, two years after the demise of the company.

The voyage made a huge impression on me and I have loved ships ever since. The bustle of the port. The tugs, the docks, all of the activity as the longshoreman loaded the ship and the crew secured her for sea. The smells, the motion, the limitless horizon, and the mystery of navigation. I saw the engine room riding on the shoulders of the Chief Engineer and on the bridge they let me spin the wheel of an inactive autopilot.

I was hooked. I never lost my fascination with ships and as I grew up I made little wooden boats and imagined sailing the world as an explorer. My favorite books growing up were books about explorers and the stories of Jack London.

When I turned 18, I joined the Coast Guard and embarked upon this wonderful career as a sailor.

Now 38 years later, in reflection, I realize what a wonderful and happy choice it was.....