Standing tall among the thousands of visitors at last weekend’s Salmonfest was a 29-foot long wooden vessel with a 9-foot beam, a 25-foot mast, and a plaque identifying it as “LML 144.”
On its bow sat the sail, not needed in the protected environment of the Ninilchik Fairgrounds. Accompanying it were Tim Troll of Dillingham and Dave Seaman and Kate Mitchell, both of Homer, organizers of “Sailing Back to the Bay.”
“The target is to launch on July 5, 2020, out of Homer, probably from the small boat harbor, with a send-off party planned on the Homer side,” said Mitchell, owner of NOMAR and past president of Homer Marine Trades Association.
The vessel is set to take off and then follow a route that has linked Homer and Bristol Bay for decades. It will sail west, across Cook Inlet to Williamsport, be portaged 26 miles to Iliamna Lake, sail the length of the lake with stops at villages along the way, navigate the Kvichak River, and then proceed on Bristol Bay to the community of Naknek, arriving an estimated two weeks later, in time for Naknek’s “Fishtival.” Total distance of the journey: more than 200 miles.
“It ties the two communities together as they have been over the years with fishing,” Mitchell said.
Wind, tides and road conditions also will have an impact on the event’s timing, said Troll, who came to Alaska as a VISTA volunteer lawyer in 1978 and is the executive director of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust.
The planned event also draws attention to Bristol Bay salmon, the habitat salmon require and the state’s commercial fishing industry. Bristol Bay is the largest producer of sockeye salmon in the world. The 2018 run of 62.3 million sockeye was the largest on record since 1893, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. A 2013 study by the University of Alaska Institute for Social and Economic Research reported that in 2010, Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon fishery supported 12,000 fishing and processing summer jobs, the equivalent of almost 10,000 year-round jobs nation-wide, and brought Americans $500 million in income.
“Over the last century, look at the West Coast of the United States, how many river systems have become uninhabitable for salmon?” asked Seaman, who at 18 landed his first fishery-related job and constructed his first boat for transportation after settling on the south side of Kachemak Bay. “Do we want to let that happen in Bristol Bay? I’m from the commercial fishery side so I don’t want to see that disappear.”
Beginning with the first Bristol Bay cannery, built in the 1880s, wooden sailboats, costing $200 apiece, were provided to two-men crews. The boats’ design led to the nickname “double-ender,” with the bow and stern similarly constructed. Not given to rot, yellow cedar planking covered the white oak ribs and ironbark formed the keel. Well-suited for their appointed task, the vessels were capable of hauling loads of 1,500-2,000 sockeye salmon weighing 5 to 7 pounds each.
It wasn’t a fishery for the faint of heart. Setting and hauling the heavy linen nets with wooden floats was done by hand. Fishing periods generally stretched 24-hour days, six days a week, with only Sundays off. Weather could be windy, wet and cold. Instead of a cabin in which to get warm and dry, a piece of canvas formed a small tent near the bow, affording fishermen a small area to sleep and cook meals.
“These men were made of iron,” was how Robin H. Samuelson, Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and board chairman for the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, described these early fishermen in Troll’s book “Sailing for Salmon, the Early Years of Commercial Fishing in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, 1984-1951.” Samuelson was the grandson of John W. Clark, for whom Lake Clark and Lake Clark National Park and Preserve are named.
In 1951, the year powerboats were legalized for Bristol Bay, there were 631 sailboats and 86 powerboats. A year later, the number of sailboats had dropped to 223, with powerboats increasing to 895. By 1953, the number of powerboats had shot up to 1,108 and sailboats, once numbering in the thousands, had dropped to 62. No longer needed, the vessels were simply piled up, burned or left to rot in the tundra. Some managed to survive, however, and were converted to powerboats and used in other Alaska fisheries. LML 144 came to Homer with 10 others in the early 1970s.
“They were some of Homer locals’ first fishing boats and just worked into the (local) fabric. The human stories that went with them are just as fascinating as the boats,” said Seaman.
Mitchell chose the Bristol Bay sailboat as a logo in 1980 when she bought the Homer Boat Yard.
“We were looking for a logo that was emblematic of Alaska fisheries and Alaska history,” said Mitchell. When NOMAR set up shop to Pioneer Avenue, Mitchell hired Seaman to construct the model of the Bristol Bay sailboat that decorates the outside of the building.
“Even after the (sailboat) fishery ended and the boats became extraneous, they had a life beyond sailing,” said Troll. “Probably other than the kayak and umiak, this is the boat that’s had the longest history in maritime Alaska.”
Before the 2020 launch, Seaman will complete some needed repairs to LML 144 and install a 24 horsepower engine. The vessel is scheduled for another public appearance, this time in Homer during the Kachemak Bay Wooden Boat Festival over Labor Day weekend.
Funding for the event is being raised through sale of Troll’s book, “Bristol Bay Forever” T-shirts and the iconic white fishermen’s hats, all available at NOMAR. Donations also can be made through Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation under which “Sailing Back to the Bay” is being organized. Established in 2000, its mission is to preserve and protect a major area of Southwest Alaska’s environment, resources and culture.
For more information or to donate, visit www.bristolbaylandtrust.org.