Sailing Fishing Boats

Tango loading lumber in Portland, 1942.

Not too long ago nearly all working boats sailed.  I keep this photo at the ready to remind myself of that. The year is 1942 and the magnificent six mast schooner, Tango, is loading its cargo at a Portland wharf.  Steam-driven passenger ships and new vessels with diesel and gas engines would be moored nearby.  But the War has abetted Tango’s longevity.  I like to think that Rosie the Riveter and her Portland girlfriends have walked past on their way to the Kaiser docks to build Liberty Ships.

This puts my life in a new pocket, a different frame of reference: I arrived on the planet shortly after the end of an age of sail.  As I exit, sometime toward the end of the short Age of Fossil Fuels, sailing working boats will likely have made their comeback.  At least, that’s what I’m thinking.

Along the bountiful North Pacific coast where so many souls fish and so many souls sail there are certainly memories of doing both at once. Joe Upton, a superb writer who fished commercially for decades, says that Alaska’s gillnet fleet was not allowed to use power until the 1950s. Regulations favor fish and motors do not. Somewhere in the minds of old fishermen lie the memories and knowledge of wooden boats rigged with both sails and gillnets.

Sailing fishing ketch Tora in Kake, Alaska

Halibut schooners are still around, though no longer operating under sail. There’s one at Sitka and we’ve chatted with the crew during their long hours of baiting hooks and arranging them artfully around the edge of the baskets (or are they plastic drums?) on top of the coiled longlines. While the schooner had been missing a mast, by this summer the bow spit – a magnificent 40 foot yellow cedar – had broken off.  But she’s still pulling her weight.

Michael Crowley fell in love with halibut schooners as an aspiring greenhorn deckhand in Alaska in the late 1960s. When the docklines of the 65-foot schooner Attu were being thrown off and its cook hadn’t appeared, Crowley began his first of many seasons on halibut schooners out of Seattle. Not a single one was built after 1927 and most came from Ballard where he says “they were shaped with adzes, slicks, steam-powered ship saws, and the brute force and ingenuity of square headed ship carpenters and designers.”

S/V Blue goes fishing

But I only started thinking about sailing and fishing after Tora caught my eye.  It was in the sleepy but well laid out harbor of Kake, Alaska.  What is that?   A sailing ketch with a trolling rig on the aft mast.  Wow!   That was on our northbound leg.  (Coming southbound, on the cusp of salmon season, we followed Tova out of Kake Harbor into Rocky Pass toward the famous fishing grounds off Prince of Wales Island near Point Baker.)

I doubt that it’s efficient to simultaneously sail and operate a commercial troll, which involves managing a couple of dozen individual hooks and handling each salmon with respect.  But sail boats are lightly powered and work well at the 4 knot trolling speed.

Blue with her long trolling poles

In any event, my eyes were opened.  I started to look out for these hybrids.  And Alaska revealed them (while British Columbia did not…probably having to do with commercial fishing regs).

Leaving Sitka – no one leaves Sitka without a smidgen of wistfulness – we spied a small sail wooden sailboat.  And lo and behold she was rigged to troll.   At Baranof Warm Springs, balm to all commercial fishermen, we saw S/V -F/V Blue raft up to a seiner at the dock.  We never got to meet the skipper, who must have headed for a high altitude hot soak, but we learned Blue has a female captain.

When our Aurora made fast at Craig on Prince of Wales Island, an attractive neighbor captured my attention.  Abundance is a triple whammy: a steel boat (I have a thing for steel boats), a sailing ketch and a fishing troller.   I hung around, making numerous trips along a very long float to Craig Harbor’s laundry, showers and restrooms, hoping to get a glimpse of the captain.  My heart sank when I looked up from my boat work to see Abundance leaving the harbor.

Abundance returns to unload her catch.

But the next day, she was back!  Not at dock, mind you, but selling the catch at Craig’s packing plant.  It must have been good because it took a while.  I know because I watched and waited, hoping to welcome Abundance back at the dock.  But the sailing troller just turned around and went back out to fish some more!

Sources:  The photo of the Tango is, I believe, from the archives of the Oregon Historical Society.  I got it from the Facebook page of the Oregon Maritime Museum, which is on the waterfront in my Portland neighborhood.    Joe Upton educated me about trolling and gillnetting in Alaska Blues and about the Alaskan crab industry in Bering Sea Blues. Michael Crowley’s story “Greenhorn” appears in Leslie Leyland Green’s wonderful book Hooked!)

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4 Responses to “Sailing Fishing Boats”


  1. 1 Nancy Spies November 27, 2012 at 7:27 am

    You wouldn’t happen to be Carol Fillips McCreary who wrote “The Traditional Moroccan Loom”, would you? If so, I need to talk with you about your illustrations.

  2. 2 Shane Reiswig March 31, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    The center for wooden boats does free sails on weekends with the “admiral” a real sailing gillnetter. I used to captain some of the sailings and teach in there sail now program. I grew commercial fishing in SE and to go out and sail in the Admiral was a real treat and experience.

    http://www.cwb.org for center for wooden boats

    • 3 Carol McCreary April 15, 2013 at 8:39 am

      My first quick visit to the Center for Wooden Boats was the last weekend in March. I hope to get back soon and may ask after you. Would love to hear your stories about fishing in Southeast. What the Pacific Northwest really needs is a Fishing Museum. Fishing is bound up with all the rest of life here, of course. But without a dedicated effort the older technologies and stories of fishing famamilies may be lost. Great to hear you’re now sailing.

  3. 4 Carol McCreary October 7, 2013 at 7:23 am

    Update: Breaking Sail Trolling News

    This afternoon I was flaking the sails, when Rick, our dock neighbor,walked by and I told him about our exhilarating sail. We’d been sitting in the bay with every square inch of sail out with the knot meter reading 0.0;then less than five minutes later we were flying at 7.8 knots!

    Rick’s a local icon, the visionary fisherman behind Cape Cleare. http://www.capecleare.com line caught salmon are proffered in every good restaurant here and sold at the Co-op and Farmer’s Market. Long lines form at their sandwich cart at events. Ever since we’ve had a slip in Port Townsend, we’ve walked by the marvelous, sublime F/V Cape Cleare. http://www.capecleare.com/how-we-fish/fishing-vessel/ The fishing boat that’s the heart, soul and operations platform of Rick’s business.

    So why am I commenting here? Because Rick has sold F/V Cape Cleare! The boat, that is not the iconic business. And his next boat will be the Port Townsend-built wooden schooner that’s moored at the end of our dock! Rick has his winter’s work cut out. He’s got to fit the schooner with the equipment to flash freeze each fish, something he says only about 50 Alaska fishing boats are able to do. And he’ll probably put trolling poles on both masts. Wow! Exciting news. Stay tuned.


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