Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Floating Shipyard Revisited

Or, The Cod Wars Revisited. However our time in Seldovia Bay, Alaska is labeled, I have to tell ya, Alicia, it was no picnic. It got considerably more comfortable at the end of the almost two months on anchor when hot and cold water started running through the ship's veins. And when we started using all those extra kilowatts to run electric heaters. Jesse, Troy and Jim were rock solid reliable to do the restoration that just had to get done. Making the old ferry seaworthy and comfortable for it's future endeavors.

Sorry I missed your move down to Central Point with Morgan. Funny how you can work on something for so long and then it happens when you turn your back for a minute. But it sounds like the move went well, and now it's great to see you two on a daily basis, living just down the street like you do. Hopefully the 'Chilkat' will be the same way. The interest in the ship will increase as it's true condition becomes more well known. I have close to a thousand pictures and lots of video of our time on the ship and around South Central Alaska. Gotta have a slide show soon.

The crew and I did what we set out to do, that is, get this long neglected ship ready for a new career in the North Pacific. I would have liked to have driven up to Homer with a van of supplies and tools. That didn't happen, so we had to work at a disadvantage and use skills from making do in canneries and on boats in times past. Jim brought his vast knowledge of the type of systems the boat had, from his Army specialties in diesel and gas engines. Also his theoretical and practical grasp of things electrical, going back to when he helped run a particle accelerator. The generator, the two main engines, and electrical controls all over the ship jumped to life under his ministrations.

Just to get the anchor winch working, Jim spent a week or more restoring the electrical controls and methodically restoring the winch deeper into it's housing until it submitted. I had the honor of dropping and lifting the anchor for the first time. Jim was monitoring the ships voltage, with a CB radio to his ear, while I started a haul-back. He had the novel idea of tweaking up the voltage if it was coming up slow. Jim had to put in a lot of original thought to restore the systems, as former owners and crew had jury-rigged things in the most baffling ways. Jim has earned his place along side his brother Jerry in the annals of Alaska mechanicing history. Jerry was available by phone, but I can vouch that Jim did it all. Jerry just retired from 40 years of putting in and fixing refrigeration systems in Alaska and sure liked keeping tabs on our "floating shipyard".

No, restoring a big ship on anchor in a remote Alaskan bay in the dead of winter is not ideal by a long shot. The first shore boat we got to make runs for supplies was carried away by a williwaw. Just stripped off its moorings to the 'Chilkat' in about a 85 mile per hour blow one night. We weren't worried about the ship itself, because a previous owner had purchased a battleship anchor and chain to hang onto. We knew we would never take that measure of safety with us as nothing on the ship could pull up that much weight. (Despite the story of the anchor being from a battleship, I'm sure it was from a much smaller naval vessel, judging by the chain size.)

The second skiff we bought and dug out of a snow bank, worked well. The rest of the crew had some trouble getting it started, but after I declared it a 'one crank outboard' they determined to run it equally as well. My chief disappointment up there was going out twice with the skiff clam digging and not finding a single clam for chowder. I knew that the bay had had one of the only commercial harvests of the elusive wild clam in Alaska. Turns out, there had been an extended period of sub-zero weather the year before during several very low tide cycles. Killed them all. I was told you could smell the rotting clams and kinda believed it, until I got a whiff on the wind myself. To me a natural disaster like that doesn't exactly equate to global warming.

Jesse was mostly Jim's apprentice and passed with flying colors. One day, I heard three air starts, meaning Jim had started the generator and both main engines. Jesse came running up to the top-house to get something and made the announcement of that milestone. Jesse must have been instrumental in the process, because later that day Jim was singing his praises and suggested he be the pilot of the ship. Jesse never ceased to amaze me even when he was little Connor's age. Probably why the Army sent him to support the capture of the Tyrant of Iraq.

Jesse got a lot of hard work done without breaking a sweat. He also had the best gear on board. Starting with the sleeping bag he used in the chill of winter nights in Middle Eastern deserts. I am now a disciple of UnderArmor clothing as well. He was using his powers of observation to good effect on the ship. I suppose he sharpened what powers he had in watching his back for two tours in Iraq. So, he was the one who spotted the problem with the anchor chain, (we just needed to rotate the chain with the big pry bar), and a fuel line problem that only he detected as a small hiss. So, he was always used to make the supply runs the fifty miles to Homer and back in the skiff. Still in the dead of winter. Well, I went too, except for the last trip. I knew the good stuff to get at the marine hardware store.

I think Jesse was the one who wanted to be there the most. He dropped out of college the minute this opportunity came up. He'd never mentioned this dream of getting back to Alaska to me prior to this. And he is more determined than ever to get back up there. Jim said, "He's the one to get this ship to wherever it needs to go." Grandpa said the same thing long ago, "He's fearless." He enjoyed it immensely when a bald eagle landed a couple feet from his head when he was painting the radar mast. And when a Steller sea eagle flew past.

The two owners were on the ship too, (although I'm a handshake owner too for writing the business plan, supplying top crew, and knowing the politics and players on the fishing grounds), but Troy was the top dynamo. I called him the human hummingbird. When he woke up in the morning he shot out of his sleeping bag like a shot out of a cannon and went the same speed all day. He had helped build a hundred houses and knew a LOT, so he carried the day in remodeling the top-house, including the crews quarters.

I did insist on using marine grade everything though. Mostly I'd start a project to demonstrate a marine compatible way to do it. Then Troy would do a good imitation of the cartoon Tasmanian devil and it would be done just like that. I brought some key tools up that I knew we would need. The power tools got a fierce workout, but the five-in-one tool got worn down to a nubbins with all the scraping off of rust and paint Troy did. When I instigated getting a air chipper, it was like the contest between John Henry and the steam hammer in the railroad legend.

What did I do up there in the frozen wilds myself? Well, I gave the project it's direction to start with. In the end it penciled out as me being the mentor. After all, Buzz saved my eighty some e-mails in a three ring binder from all winter and was calling it "The Book of John." I would say a lot of my suggestions were taken to heart. I did my share of painting, scraping, doing body and fender work, organizing, cleaning, cutting steel, climbing masts, polishing brass, tracing wires and pipes, etc. It was easy to find something to do for an old fisheries production manager and boat person like me.

And I was the official scribe for the whole endeavor. A daily journal that I would occasionally read to Lee Smith of Wasilla from my cell phone on the 'Chilkat.' The trick was to be standing in the Lounge, or outside, on the side of the ship that the cell tower was on. Otherwise too much steel gets in the way. And that's what you had to do with laptops too. In fact, Troy built a laptop desk and high stool to sit at the windows on the side that tide and wind dictated.

Tide and wind fought for control of the ship on too many occasions to count. The result would be wallowing in the trough of swells coming in from Kachemak Bay and Lower Cook Inlet. And that would double the chances of a swell. So we really got our sea legs fast. I had bought the toughest engineer boots I could find before going. The drawback was that my toes got cold. The permanent numbness in the ends of my big toes may or may not be the result of this. I was supposed to meet Morgan today to look for a primary care doctor around here. My old one is a State Senator who thinks there are only three natural medicines that work.

I think I got the ultimate compliment the other day, by way of one of the most forward thinking cafe processor/marketers around, John Foss. He said "his jaw dropped" when he read the last article on the 'Chilkat,' about a month ago. He mentioned me being a "forward thinker." Well, I've been called worse. He's special, especially, because he's been a long time reader of my blog. I'd do anything for a guy like that. Terry was the only family member, out of six families, sent care packages to us in Seldovia Bay. Like the crock pot and the bread maker.

Oh, I meant to mention that a marine insurance broker friend said this vessel design had been used in World War Two. It was designed as an intermediate range landing craft. It apparently performed so well they put big long range radars on them for picket duty around Okinawa. They were also harder to hit than a destroyer, being smaller in size. But I know one other change I'd like to see: rolling chocks. Wouldn't interfere with beaching her at all. I'm sure former owners and captains would agree, neither having the check writing ability to fund such a project. I'd do it myself, with Jesse's help, of course.

Jesse says he wants to get good at welding, so there's his chance. We were going to weld aluminum skiffs on the ship in down times. The design I had in mind had run from Florida to Portland around the Horn once. Another owner of a boat with the design could cut the chop on a windy Columbia River with both 115s at full tilt boogey. There would be no limit on how big or small you could make the design. It's not the most fuel effient, but neither is an F-15.

We really wanted to go right into salting cod from the jig boats around Kodiak. I think wherever we went the boats would welcome the chance to unload on the grounds. It's a long ways back to the city of Kodiak from most grounds for those small boats. And doing a quality pack by hand would match the Chilkat's capacity constraints. It would be a 'cafe processor.' It wouldn't be any great threat to anyone. Just cause good will wherever she goes. I may have to do it with another ship though, I don't know.

I think I get more of a charge out of seeing a whole project through, that needs doing, that nobody else is doing. And in that vein I'd revisit the 'Chilkat' project to it's completion, of putting up a salt cod pack. There was, and still is, a lot of enthusiasm for the basic business plan. I also started to describe other scenarios for putting the ship to work, like salvage work and charter work of all kinds. After all it is a premier short haul freighter. Hauling people again is actually a possibility with such an engineer as Jim.

And, of course, the ship is a landing craft that a tractor and twenty foot trailer can board with room for fifteen other cars. We didn't realize what a military design it is until we saw how honeycombed the holds are with ribs. They are knee deep and that far apart. If it ever did hit a rock, I think the rock would come out second best. I've attempted to break, cut and drill the steel in the ship all over and most often the tools came out second best. The steel was reputed to be from a canceled destroyer order at the shipyard, Martinac, of Tacoma, William Garner, lead architect. It was the first ferry made for inter-island travel in Alaska. The 'Chilkat' is dwarfed by the new ferries, it's modern, big cousins, or I should say, THEIR little orphan sister.

I was called an engineer once too when I was doing fishing gear research and development. So my eye caught the way the wiring was installed throughout the ship. And it all still works. That's because it's in rubberized tubes in stainless steel braid fastened every eight to ten inches by a 3/4 inch stainless steel strap with two stainless steel bolts. The junction boxes and light fixtures are cast aluminum with brass end plates and large navy brass fittings where the wiring runs in and out. The result is something you can do pull-ups from. I'm sure the Marines did that too on the LSI your grandpa ran during the war in the Pacific when he was Jesse's age.

The ship was a fascinating playground for almost two months. Maybe the most unpleasant part was waking up cold every morning. Then it was a mad scramble to get the wood stove going. We got one load of wood from the town drunk in Seldovia that was not seasoned at all. It was a real trick to keep that stuff going. But it was during one of the many snowstorms and everyone was running low on firewood. One local called it the "endless winter of 2010."

Speaking of locals, what a fascinating group of people live in Seldovia, starting with the town drunk who states it's hard work keeping his reputation from lagging. The center of community life is the Cafe and Bar called the 'Linnwood.' I still have a token, good for one beer there. They give them out when someone rings the bell, and you just keep it if you figure you've had enough beers already. Almost all city business is conducted there; potlucks are held there too. (The salmon chowder and cod fritters were exceptional.) We visited the library, which you would have liked, Alicia, and the City Council chambers, which had a sign saying there was a city ordinance against sniveling and carried a $50 fine for violations.

The summer is Seldovia's big time of year. It's tourist season. Lots of quirky exhibits around town, like the building with the sign announcing the Church of Cod. They believe in the barbel. In case you don't know cod anatomy, the barbel is the fleshy goatee on a cod's lower jaw. Or the king crab pot labeled, "Deadliest Catch Jail." There were lots of very ingenious and artful wooden chainsaw sculptures around town from annual competitions of years past. All in all, very quaint. A fast ferry service from Homer is starting up this spring, running several times a day from Homer.

There is a native community there and an old Russian era church, built to civilize the locals. In Seldovia, it almost seems like the pendulum has swung the other way on who is civilized. When we first got there, the harbormaster screamed at us to keep our ship away from the harbor. Before too long, as we were dropping thousands of dollars into the town's economy, we were getting rides on the harbormaster's four-wheeler. They were a little sensitive about ships needing painting tying up in the harbor. Someone left a big junker there and now the Coast Guard is the proud owner and has spent a million dollars 'watching' it. One of the big employers in town is an oil company who has two oil spill response barges anchored in the bay. Probably a bigger payroll than the cannery that used to be there.

Disappointing, too, was the lack of game around there. I suppose if you looked real close you could see some white mountain goats miles away against all the snow. But the weather there is too harsh for deer, and the mountains too steep for moose. We heard some wolves and coyotes though. Sure don't know what they find to eat. There weren't even any fish in the bay. The herring had been cleaned out by fishermen long ago. There was at least one herring, because we saw a diving duck come up with one one day. Sometimes a stock of fish gets so hammered down that it can't bounce back in numbers.

I think that's the case around there with the salmon and the herring. If someone wants to see fish in Alaska, "Go West, Young Man, Go West." Go see Bristol Bay fast, in case they put the Pebble Mine in over there. There was a winter king salmon derby out of Homer when we were there and some of the best fishing was around Seldovia. Buzz saw a jumper not far from the ship the day before the derby, and the same day he saw the diving duck with the herring. Ninety kings were entered in the derby. That's the thing about king salmon, they are thinly scattered all over the continental shelf of western North America, like sharks cruising for a meal, years before heading back to spawn. They probably caught kings at Seldovia that were from Oregon.

As you know, I can slip into a diatribe on fisheries management at the drop of a hat. I told the owners I wasn't going to do that while I was in charge of publicity for the salt cod project. Too easy for someone to get their nose out of joint and diss even good work you are doing in some other arena. Like your hair style or brand of boots. We had our hands full anyway without worrying about trawlers. Oops, I said the 'T' word again.

However there is no getting away from fisheries management if you are setting up a fish business. It's a tricky trail. For example, we figured when we got on station, we'd invite a fisheries student out on the boat and do a thesis on local stock depletion. What is worrying is that they found on the Grand Banks that a massive regional cod stock is really many, many little genetic stocks. One school of cod that spawns on one rockpile, like a small run of humpies in any little creek, will always go back to the same place, because of unique genes. When that school of cod is all caught, and they are vulnerable to that during spawning time, then no cod spawn there anymore.

Honest fishermen know this and have said it, but government research on the subject has not been forthcoming to date. Ironically, when we started talking about bringing a support ship to the cod jigging grounds off Kodiak, the trawl interests in Kodiak had someone agitate in the City Council and the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council to ban floating processors in Kodiak waters. No memtion of how far off shore, or if the many catcher/processors were included in this ban; most likely not. A fisherman stood up in the City Council and said that a support ship is exactly what they need, so they can move around and not deplete an area. If nobody fished the Grand Banks of Canada for 100 years, only half the cod would come back, since so many distinct genetic stocks have been wiped out.

Many is the time when this "just me and never thee" politicking works with the fish managers, which is why the shills even make these ridiculous requests. That's why I think the system is broken. It's been the same way since Captain Cook was "stopped by a shoale of salmon" trying to sail up the Amur River.

Arrrrrrr matey, I got sidetracked on fish politics again. Don't worry, I'll never be invited to help manage the fiah, because I think what is right is right. It's so messed up now, it's like asking Congress to vote themselves a pay reduction. Like last year when the head of the Nationa Marine Fisheries Service told the public that they could see the bottom better from the surface in 200 fathoms than someone in a bathysphere with a spotlight four feet off the bottom. Dang, that's a good camera or whatever they have. Either really spooky or really wrong. I suspect the latter.

Well, anyway, the salt cod idea is out of the closet. You don't have to have a huge amount of money to do this service for the fishermen. There's lots of room in the niche. The basic idea has never changed: bring a bigger boat than the fishing boats in with a hold full of salt, then split the cod and salt them in the hold. Then go home when the hold is full. That's how the Iberians did it since long before Columbus, off the E. coast of Canada. You don't use any more machinery than you have to. All that fancy machinery either lowers the fishermen's take, or increases what the consumer has to pay. Or puts so much pressure on the operator to do mass volumes, (and play politics), that the fish get wiped out when nobody is looking.

Hand cutting cod and putting salt on the fillets might use a little steel for a knife and maybe some for a salt scoop. Even with an 'ugly labor-saving device' like a radar, it's still what's called a 'green' operation. And the jig fishermen can certainly throw any fish back alive that they don't want to keep. Even small cod, which other gear types can't nearly match.

I've had this discussion several times recently, and with high powered folk with Phd behind their name. The question is, what is the point of deploying the most and the latest technology in the largest vessel or plant possible to prosecute a fishery. Seems to me NOAA is barking up the wrong tree by thinning out the small boat operators and supporting the very large boat lifestyle. I minored in Industrual Engineering at OSU, and it certainly teaches efficiency of methods and conservation of motion. But the discipline doesn't delve into socio-economic conundrums, like the 'right' someone has to influence government to keep the communities away from the fish so he can scoop them up uninterrupted.

I would like to see the Alaska Department of Fish and Game research small cod stock depletion factors before there are no more to study, like the Kodiak king crab.

That's why it's so important to work with head above the sand in Alaska fisheries. That is if making things better interests one, and not making them worse. And to leave a legacy in healthy fish stocks for the kids, which is what I want to do for Jesse, Daniel and Elias. All of them have, or are serving in the Armed Forces, and in no mean capacity, so why shouldn't I fight to protect their freedoms at home?

Elias was there with his new red beret when I got home from Seldovia Bay. A year of trying to wash him out of Air Force Combat Control just put him more in the spotlight. What an effort. When Jesse, Connor and I were climbing Table Rock Mt. the other day, Jesse said he'd carried men his size up that kind of stuff in Iraq, with an IV in them. Pioneering in the fisheries makes me feel like I'm helping carry that man. What more could I do?

One of these days I'll get all those pictures and footage sorted out and maybe put some on the Internet for your perusal. Lee is still thinking about writing a book on the restoration project. I'm sure it would be thicker than the 'Passport Alaska' I did that time. Some of what happened up there I'm still trying to digest. Jesse called it his third 'deployment.' Hopefully we are an example to other entrepreneurs contemplating a task everyone else says is impossible. Our mission was accomplished, and we wish the owners of the 'Chilkat' well.

To be continued.....


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The M?V Chilkat becomes the F/V Chilkat

Restoration Continues on M/V Chilkat

Making Progress Towards New Life Salting Cod in Old Traditional Way

These days, the old M/V Chilkat is both a home and a business to the six crew members who have come together to combine their individual skills, knowledge, and experience to restore the ship and implement their plan of helping cod fishermen keep their way of life.

If such a thing as destiny can guide our lives to help accomplish things that are just meant to be, then the dream these six men have will become a reality. This crew works together like a well oiled machine.

Already having lived two lives, the Chilkat is making a transformation into a third. This small ship goes back to World War II, where it was originally built as a landing craft for the military to off load on the island of Iwo Jima. Made under war time conditions, no expense or quality of materials was spared in her construction. These landing craft were built for an expected one time use only, but the Chilkat's small size enabled her to escape being hit by enemy fire, and she was taken back to the Martinac Ship Yards of Tacoma, Washington to be refitted for service as an Alaskan ferry.

For many years the M/V Chilkat served patrons of the Alaska Marine Highway. After being sold to at least two buyers who didn't quite know what to do with the ship, the Chilkat sat empty in Seldovia Harbor for four years, patiently waiting for her new crew, who is now working diligently to restore her utility. John Enge, Buzz Richards, Jesse Enge, Steve Dawson, Jim Hansen, and Troy Bert call the Chilkat their home and business rolled into one.

"We are on a crusade to prove that fishing can be done sustainably, with proper support services in a sustainable fashion," said John Enge, the scribe and ship's log keeper for the crew. "Most of that reads hard work and low tech," he added. He calls it a "working museum."

John went on to say, "We found the ship to be in much better working condition than we'd thought." Their objective is to restore the Chilkat for salting fish in the old traditional manner. John's family history lends credence to their business plan, as his ancestors were two of the first residents of Petersburg, Alaska in the mid 1800's and were dory fishermen in the old tradition. "Now it will come full circle," John continued, "as the Chilkat serves the cod jigging fishermen off Kodiak this spring and summer. "Hook and line cod jigging by dory as done off the Grand Banks for hundreds of years will sustain the Chilkat for as long as it's an open entry fishery."

The Chilkat will be capable of serving many other support functions, such as for research, sport, commercial diving, salvage, and cargo transport. It has a main boom for lifting skiffs, an unloading and side loading hoist, and a bow door designed to drive in with a semi and trailer. It also has five water tight holds for additional storage. Being used for a boat welding and fabrication shop in the winter is also being considered.

For the time being, work is the order of the day, from paint scraping and new paint to overhauling the many different systems the Chilkat needs to have in good working shape. The crew has been surprised at the amount of metal found, not only brass was used throughout, but silver was used in the electrical connections. Also surprising is how the Chilkat has become part of the eco system in Seldovia Bay, with various wildlife around it. Birds have made it a stopover, ducks have used its deck for takeoff, otters have rested on a small lip above the water line. Even whales have been close by.

When she's ready leave, the huge anchor that now holds the Chilkat will be tied off to a buoy, charted, and left for other boats to use. A new maiden voyage, even just a short run to Seldovia when the ice flows out of the harbor, will be something to celebrate for the little ship with at least three lives.