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The ebb and flow of a boat woman's life

Bridget Milligan shares stories of life on water and land

Posted: June 22, 2013 - 11:16pm
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Bridget Milligan inside her Bristol Bay double-ender at Aurora Harbor on Friday.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Bridget Milligan inside her Bristol Bay double-ender at Aurora Harbor on Friday.

Born on the Southern California coast, Bridget Milligan took to the water naturally.

“My father was a whaler. My father wanted me to be a sailor,” Milligan said, admitting disappointment that she didn’t remember the whaling songs he used to sing her when she was young.

Her grandfather was another seafaring man, who both thrilled her and terrified her.

“My grandfather was absolutely terrifying, and the name of that dory is the F.D. Gayer, which was my grandfather’s name. Francis David Gayer. And he built this boat, he was so proud of it, it had a concave bottom and a little outboard motor, he lived out in Santa Monica, Calif. And he would stand on this boat that was concave on the bottom with a rope to the outboard motor on the back and he would fly across the water, steering like this, with me on the back terrified,” Milligan said, “I loved my grandfather, I would go anywhere with him, but he scared me to death.”

The dory named after her grandfather is a small boat that she sails or rows frequently, tied next to her other boat, a Bristol Bay double-ender, which she is living aboard this summer.

The quest for the Bristol Bay double-ender started many years ago, Milligan claims to be bad with numbers, or that she only worries about numbers when it comes to business, so there’s not an exact timeline.

“Before I had my dory boat, I lived in Cordova, and we had a 16-foot rowing Dory that we called Tippy. Some of them the old timers would say were so tippy that you couldn’t shift your gum, and Tippy was shifty. So, we wanted a bigger boat,” she said.

She and her partner, with their children, traveled coastal Alaska fishing, doing odd work and, at one time, seeking out a Bristol Bay double-ender.

“We landed in Dillingham on a dirt jet strip, climbed back in the bushes with kids and bags and everything, spent the winter care-taking the lodge, which is a great story, when we came up the whole goal was to get a Bristol Bay double-ender, which is what this is, which there aren’t any more of, this boat in itself is a story,” Milligan said, patting the larger of the two boats she has in Aurora Harbor, “This boat has much more story than I would ever have.”

And with that, we get into the heart of Milligan’s story.

After their time in Dillingham, “We ended up hitchhiking. There’s a fleet of fishing boats that goes from San Francisco up to Norton Sound, and they fish herring all the way, and then they come back, so we hitchhiked back to Bristol Bay with them after we spent the winter in Dillingham and kelping with eskimos and trading with the Japanese on Japanese Steamers... they traded us rice and bulldog sauce because we didn’t have any food, we were just out there,” she said, “When we got to Bristol Bay we found double-enders that weren’t destroyed — all of them, as soon as they could use power, these boats, everybody abandoned them, and they were just in the sand rotten everywhere, the canneries were forgotten, everything was rotten. We found two boats that weren’t rotten and we had to spend the summer rebuilding the cannery to get them out and that was the only reason we were out there.”

After some effort, they were able to leave Naknek with a double-ender the village had parted with for $300.

“These boats were in such great condition because every year before they took them out they slap a good coat of paint on them, so when we took off the paint, it was like layers of plastic. So we took it down to natural, I think we used household floor varnish on this one, and we took it to Kodiak because all I really wanted was a dory. That dory,” she said, pointing to the smaller boat, “This was all 36 years ago, because that boat is 36 years old.”

She said she really loved the double-ender they had found in Naknek, but when she and her partner split, he kept it.

“Then, life goes on and I had a 32-foot gillnetter and I commercial fished in Kodiak and did a lot of fishing and my kids fished with me and we lived on the boats a lot,” Milligan said.

Boat life in a harbor like Aurora is luxurious, Milligan implied, compared with living on a boat in wilder parts of the state.

She said most of her children were raised on boats and one of her daughters, as an adult, now takes a critical eye to the very minimal and often rough lifestyle Milligan would describe in detail. There is a photo of her now 36-year-old daughter at a very early birthday, with her older brother and sister, a hand-made sign reading ‘Happy Birthday,’ a stuffed rag doll and “mush with something sweet on it.” Her daughter looks gleeful in the picture.

High living was a cabin with enough wood to heat it through the winter.

The logistics of living on (or out of) a boat like the dory would be foreign to many today. There were cloth diapers hanging from the rigging as often as salmon and the quarters were certainly cramped.

“We would spend whole winters, we’d take a wall tent and for the winter we’d put a wall tent on the beach for a while in some bay. Then when we got tired we’d move on,” Milligan said, “We’d find 55-gallon drums and put them in the wall tent, and the kids would call it trapping, they’d go get big pieces of moss — ‘I got a bear hide’ and ‘I got a fox’ — and we’d put all this moss on the floor and we’d take spruce boughs and put them, you know, for a roof, and we’d put these stoves in there and we’d live there for a while. We lived all over Kodiak Island in this boat.”

She said, “The kids lived in the bow, which they’ll never forgive me for, the middle, this boat here had a center-board in it because they were originally sailing boats, so the bed was on one side and stored stuff on the other side and we fished out of the back and when we got a lot of fish, then the beds became a fish hold. We would go to deliver and we’d have sleeping bags hanging in the rigging, kids sitting on the front, and we would do really good sometimes. We were out there, we were part of the environment. Fishermen would be out on these great big boats and we would be out there with kids and sleeping bags and delivering all these big halibut and the fishermen would just go, ‘Whoa.’”

She eventually left fishing behind, though it had certainly kept her going both in Alaska and before, she said she had also lived in Hawaii and harvested lobsters back east, and when she sold her herring permit, she put the money into the Kodiak Coat Company.

About five years ago, though, Milligan said the economy was dampening business and she decided to close up and sail. In the dory, she made her way to Gustavus to visit a friend and, she said, when writing her customary three pages in the morning to “keep what you need, get rid of what you don’t need,” she wrote that she needed a Bristol Bay double-ender, a thought triggered by endlessly having to move one thing or another to get to any other thing on the little dory. She needed a bigger boat.

In a serendipitous moment walking through Gustavus toward the airport, she saw a bristol Bay double-ender at the gas station she said was owned by Dick Lovett. She went straight to Lovett and, talking a mile a minute, said, “I need that boat!”

She quickly rounded up a shipwright to check out the double-ender and he reportedly said “Oh yeah, that’s what you need.”

Milligan said Lovett offered her the double-ender for the price he had paid, just $500, “So I don’t have $500, I’ve been out rowing and sailing in Icy Straits and stuff.”

But serendipity didn’t abandon Milligan there, she and her friend she was in town to visit were spotted donning their Kodiak Coats by some tourists with a desire to shop. After a little discussion, they insisted on placing an order for the coats to be shipped when they were done and paying cash up front.

“I guess I have my boat,” Milligan said demurely.

Many residents of Gustavus came together to help her with the boat, from a place to keep it to a way to transport it. But the boat, though perfect for her, was not in perfect condition. That’s where Dave Abel came in.

Milligan sang high praises of Dave and Susie Abel, who she credits with keeping Juneau’s old boats seaworthy. She took the double-ender to him because, she said, “He’s THE shipwright in town.”

“He is such an artist, watching him is amazing,” she said, additional praise was bestowed on Susie as well. “Just knowing them is such a treat.”

He had three weeks he dedicated to the double-ender, and Milligan said one condition of his working on it was that she participate. “You have to do half the work, that’s his deal, I never worked so hard in my life.”

They rebuilt the stern, mostly because, flashing before and after photos of the double-ender, “this looks better than that,” she said, while joking about a “female” tendency to have a strong opinion about the aesthetic.

The work, in addition to being physically demanding, could also be tedious.

“It took me two years,” she said, “I took every bit of cotton out of every seam in this boat and re-cottoned and re-caulked. I completely put in a bunch of new ribs. I refastened — all the ribs you have to make a hole, counter-sink it, put poison in it, then you put a screw in it and screw the screw down, and you spray it with a clear paint — or any color, it doesn’t matter because you’re going to sand it off — to seal it, then you put a plug in it and you sand it off. I did that to every plank. Everything in here.”

Once she was seaworthy, Milligan reported “Dave said, ‘Put it in the water and it will soak up water for about a week and then you’ll keep bailing it.’ This boat never took on more than two inches, Milligan said, beaming with pride. “My history is, I used to have a lobster fishing boat in Connecticut, about a hundred years ago, and I learned from those old-timers how to caulk a boat, so I knew what I was doing.”

“He put all new decking, all new stringers, this thing is 100 percent sound,” she said. Aside from changing the stern, the only big change made was expanding the deck around the circumference of the boat to 14 inches “’cause I thought my dog could run around on them better.”

“It’s not traditional because I made a change to it, but, anyhow, there it is.”

The double-ender was numbered 20A, Milligan said, explaining that it was the 20th boat registered after statehood. She has a photo showing the old numbers, but when she named it, after a phrase her son often said when someone tried to tell him he couldn’t do something — “Evermewantto” — she had to re-register the boat with new numbers.

“People kept saying to me, ‘What are you going to do with that boat?’” Milligan explained, then, with a mock stubborn pout and a giggle, she said she’d respond, “Ever me want to.”

“A really fun thing,” Milligan said, “This guy came down here, this old guy, he said, ‘This used to be my boat, I had it for 40 years,’ and Dick had got it from him, and he goes, ‘Same old spruce tree ribs, you kept them.’ He had gone to some little island and found all these green spruce trees and bent them and put them in there and they’re still there.”

Milligan has continued to make improvements to the boat, including spending the last six months rebuilding a volvo diesel engine with guidance and assistance from University of Alaska Southeast’s Assistant Professor of Diesel Technology Carroll Johnson.

A simplified diesel class she had hoped to take was canceled due to lack of registration, but Johnson recognized her boat as a Bristol Bay double-ender and the two got to talking and he invited her to join the more advanced class to work on the engine she’d picked up last summer.

She said she was crying like a baby when she finally got it started after all her work. She recorded a video with her iPhone of the little white diesel motor starting up that first time.

I commercial fish in the summer sometimes with a guy named Walter... and I said to him, ‘Walter, I have two problems with my diesel engine, one is I don’t know what to name it, the other thing is I don’t know what color to paint it,’ and he said, ‘Well, don’t name it ‘til you start it up because every one is different, mine’s so quiet I call it whisper,’ but he said, ‘Paint it white’ — it’s a volvo and all volvos are green — ‘he said, ‘Paint it white, you can work on it better, it’ll be white and bright, you can see the rust, see the oil, you’ll be really happy.’”

She has been sailing to Seattle recently to visit Walter, she said, because he’s going through chemotherapy treatment and she said she needs to “fatten him up,” but she joked that “We got 4 lbs. on Walter and we all gained 10.”

Milligan is so passionate about her Bristol Bay double-ender and all the work she’s put into it, though she recalled an interaction with a man, when the museum had shown a double-ender in an exhibit, who responded negatively to her ownership of a double-ender.

“You people down here have all that are left, there are none left. I don’t have one,” he reportedly said, something that left her shaken. “So then I started thinking about, wow, this is really precious.”

She said she consulted Bob Banghart with the Alaska State Museum and asked, “Is it OK that I have this?” and was told, since it had been refurbished, it no longer had the historical value it may have unchanged and that “its wealth now is in being out there and people seeing it used.”

She most often takes the dory out sailing or rowing, since it is always ready to go.

“This boat (the double-ender), it’s a big deal to take it out, I’ve got to take me tarps off and make that decision, right now I’m trying to make that decision because I’ve been going back and forth to Seattle,” Milligan said, unveiling some big news, “I am finally going to do something with my coat company. I’ve met some great people, we’re getting together to actually produce and have my Kodiak Coat company become a real line instead of just a little local shop. I’m going down at the end of July to do that.”

Does that fit with her more carefree sounding dream? It just might.

“Now my dream in life is just to live on my boat, row around in my dory and paint,” Milligan said, adding, “It’s so much fun to work on a boat ... I love what I do when I’m sewing inside — whenever I think I’ve got a bad job, I go look at someone else’s job.”

She is happy to work hard on her “labors of love.” She hadn’t imagined being able to take Kodiak Coats to the next level, saying she had a hard time thinking big, but, “It’s big, it’s really big to think about actually making the Kodiak Coat company into a real company.”

She questioned whether it was low self esteem or fear of failing that had kept her from thinking bigger before, but she said she has a saying, “Never make a decision out of fear.” And that stems from more seafaring wisdom.

Milligan has found herself in perilous straits (pun intended) on a handful of occasions.

Once, she had taken her dory out to White Sulfur Hot Springs and enjoyed some time blissfully alone, and she got to “wash my clothes in hot water and put them out on black rocks and run around naked, it was awesome, it was so nice.” Then, she said, a group of men showed up with a bunch of alcohol and she decided it was time for her to get out of there. But her sudden departure didn’t coincide with the best conditions for her trip. “I probably wouldn’t have made such a dumb decision but I was kind of scared, and I have a saying, never make a decision out of fear... anyhow, when I got out there, it was blowing so hard and I was already out there and I was committed and I had to row so hard to get to the next shelter.”

Another time involved swimming with sea lions, which were much more frightening than their graceful movements would indicate. And she admits to being scared when they were in Bristol Bay and bears were “eating out of our pots and pans and bumping up against our tent, so we had to get out of there.” She said, “The bears just wouldn’t leave us alone and, of course, we were eating seal and herring.”

Despite the wild life, both animal and what she referred to as being a “cowboy of the water” — a fisherman — she said, “I don’t consider any of them to be as dangerous or scary as driving on the freeway.”

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