A little nautical history

Posted: Friday, April 23, 2004

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

There was an expression in the days of sailing that it was a time of iron men and wooden ships. But for a few brief decades, from about 1840 to 1880, the hulls of powered and sailing ships were made of iron. This was only a blink of time, in consideration of the centuries men have made wooden ships and since about 1880 large ships made of steel.

One of the most interesting museums one can visit is an old ship. If you're in Boston you can see the Constitution, which fought in the war of 1812 against the British, and in England you can visit Nelson's flagship, the Victory, which was part of the fleet that defeated the French and Spanish at Trafalgar.

It is not easy to restore and preserve an old ship. It is a costly endeavor to undertake. I have often thought it would be wonderful to preserve some of the unusual fishing vessels that have been a part of Alaska history.

One beautiful type of ship is the wooden halibut schooner that was built in Seattle and other ports in Washington in the early 1900s. Many of these boats are still in service, and if you watch closely at the Taku Smokeries dock in the coming summer days, you can occasionally see one with its long, slender hull and raised bow that resembles a Viking ship of a thousand years ago.

Another wonderful workhorse of a boat, which was mainly constructed in the 1940s, is the power scow. It is a flat-bottomed vessel made of big timbers, usually with a house on the stern and powered with two engines. It is great to use where water is shallow and advantageous to run up on the beach or sit on the mud at a dock that is dry when the tide runs out. You can see many in Bristol Bay. They often tie up at Juneau docks in the spring on the way north to Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, Kodiak Island and Bristol Bay. Usually, they are painted in the company colors, so a fleet of gill netters or seiners can easily spot them.

Alaska's greatest ship unfortunately can never be the site of a museum. She is at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Her name was the Bear.

She started as a sealing ship, then served the United States government on rescue and support trips to the Arctic and Antarctic, and for many years made an annual trip to Alaska, to bring supplies to Aleutian and Bering Sea communities as well as medical and legal services.

In 1963 she was being towed from Nova Scotia to Philadelphia to serve as a museum, when a storm broke the line. She wallowed in the big waves, her planking opened and she slowly sank.

One of the finest maritime museums is at San Diego. If you go there be sure to see her. She used to sail to Alaska during the first two decades of the 1900s. At that time she was called the Star of India, and she was owned by the Alaska Packer's Association. She would sail to Bristol Bay and in the late summer return to her home port of Alameda, Calif.

She was made of iron at the Isle of Man, off the English coast in1863.

Her first voyages were as a merchant vessel to India. Back then she made 21 around-the-world trips carrying immigrants to New Zealand. A full load was a little more than 400 passengers, which was a tight fit because her length was only a little more than 200 feet.

She would set sail from Glasgow or Liverpool out into the Atlantic, round the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa, then across the Indian Ocean to Auckland or Wellington. Then homeward bound, eastward around Cape Horn at the southern end of South America and back to England.

Around the turn of the century, she entered the Hawaiian-Pacific trade, carrying Puget Sound timber to Australia, coal from there to Hawaii and sugar back to the West Coast.

In 1902 she made her first trip to Alaska where she continued to sail until 1923.

She is the oldest merchant vessel in the world, and she can still set her sails to head out into the broad expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

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