KETCHIKAN — The Alaska State Museum in Juneau is homeless. But it’s only temporary, said Alaska State Museums Conservator Ellen Carrlee.
“The state is working on what they’re calling the SLAM Project — the state libraries archives and museums project,” Carrlee said. “Those three entities, which have previously been in separate facilities, are coming together into one giant facility, which is under construction right now.”
The new building will sit on the site of the old museum building, so the site will remain home for a number of exhibits, including a mining locomotive, historic kayaks, a lighthouse lens, mammoth tusks, “tons and tons” of taxidermized animals and a crab pot from the TV show “Deadliest Catch.” Come spring 2016, it will also house a restored Bristol Bay double-ender, Carrlee said.
A Bristol Bay double-ender is a single-sail fishing boat that was widely used by immigrant fishermen from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s in Bristol Bay.
“They were basically made to be filled with fish and with two guys in it, and (also) to be accidentally beached at (low) tide and be able to float off again at (high) tide,” Carrlee said, “but they were slow and clunky and not very maneuverable. ... They were like big, fat work horses.”
The idea of the double-ender began in California in the 1860s, but it quickly moved up the coast, where the boats became known as “Columbia River Salmon Boats” for their effectiveness in harvesting salmon on the Columbia River, according to John Breiby, author of “Rigging the Spritsail on a Bristol Bay Double Ender.” By the 1880s, the concept of small single-sail, low-sitting fishing boats traveled farther north — by bumming a ride, said Carrlee.
“They would be on the deck of a bigger boat that would come up from Seattle, and it would have all these cannery workers on it and people who would be fishing in Bristol Bay,” Carrlee said.
Once the double-enders reached Bristol Bay, they were manned by two fishermen.
“The boat itself has this way that two people can run this boat, put the sail up and down and catch all these fish and live and sleep on it for days at a time,” Carrlee said.
As more effective fishing methods and equipment developed, some double-enders were left to rot on beaches, but many were refurbished to accommodate motors, Carrlee said.
“There’s probably people in Ketchikan who have double-enders,” she said. “It was really popular to take them and covert them into motorized boats. It’s pretty hard to find one that they haven’t turned into what they call a conversion and had an engine put on them.”
But the museum found one, and it had some of its original equipment, including oars, masthead, masthoops and sails — sails in rough shape.
“The old sails that we have are dirty, and they have splotches and stains and whatnot from use,” Carrlee said.
A little wear and tear would be alright for just a display, but the museum had something different in mind, Carrlee said.
“The exhibit designers wanted to be able to project film footage of Bristol Bay double-enders under sail in Bristol Bay doing this kind of work,” Carrlee said. “The Alaska State Library’s historical collection has really cool film footage. ... The idea was, ‘Why don’t we have Louie Bartos make a replica sail that we could then use for that purpose of projecting this film and then we’d also have an original Louie Bartos sail. How amazing would that be?’”
Bartos is a longtime Ketchikan local and the owner of Mariner Sails. He’s also an internationally published author, an accomplished sailmaker and a dedicated sail and naval historian.
Bartos and Carrlee had previously worked together on preserving a piece of an old sail researchers had sent to him to analyze and interpret, and Bartos was the first person Carrlee thought of when the museum decided a replica sail was required for the projection project on the Bristol Bay double-ender.
“How many people do you know who can make sails from scratch?” Carrlee said.
And not just any sails — historically accurate replicas that are more technically precise and carefully crafted than the originals.
“I took the original sail to Ketchikan and laid it out in Louie’s sail loft,” Carrlee said. “We got measurements off of it and looked at the technical details of the sail and talked over which aspects of the sail were things that we wanted to copy exactly and which ones, according to Louie, were poor workmanship that he would execute properly on the replica sail.”
The original sails had a lot of errors, Bartos said, with the corners especially, but also the stitching of the bolt rope, which borders the outline of the sail and provides the sail’s strength.
“The original was production made,” Bartos said, “In other words, the cannery said, ‘Hey, make me 100 sails,’ and like cookie cutters, they made them very quickly. What they did was skip stitches in the bolt rope — instead of each strand being hooked or stitched, it was every other one. Well, that’s weak. (It’s) poor, poor, poor construction, so it just doesn’t set right. That rope is the strength of the sail. The cloth is not strong. These boats are pretty small, but on a ship, that’s very, very, very important. That’s the strength of the sail, that’s what strong. The rest of it — nothing. It would just catch the wind, that’s all.”
Bartos is writing a book about the craft. The book, tentatively titled “The Evolution of Sails and Sailmaking between 1500 and 1900,” currently runs some 900 pages long, and it’s not finished.
“All these little things — (I’m always asking), ‘How do they do that?’ and I get onto it and suddenly that one paragraph becomes two pages, becomes 50 pages, something like that when you really dig into it,” Bartos said.
Bartos learned to sail as a boy on the shores of Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, where he grew up. From his love of sailing, he picked up the basics in sailmaking.
“I started sailing then (as a 10-year-old boy) and I just sailed and sailed and anytime I got a chance to sail, I’d sail — dinghy sails or good boats,” he said, adding “I was taught handsewing ... and anytime I found an old-timer, I would bend his ear and say, ‘How’d you do that?’ They would tell me because I was a kid — they didn’t care. I had good teachers who taught me the old ways. ... They told me all the basic stuff, and I just built on that.”
“The old ways” of sailmaking fascinate Bartos, he said.
“I like the history of stuff. It’s probably one of my biggest problems, ever since I was a kid,” he said. “ ... It used to bother me a lot — ‘Where did that come from? When was that built and when did they put that ship on line and why did they do that?’ It drove people nuttier than a fruitcake, me saying, ‘That’s what I want to know.’ But you have to know to know when things are right or if they’re wrong.”
Bartos’ sail will be on display as a permanent exhibit at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau starting in June 2016.