Oysters and Ice
A New Life for an Alaskan King Crab Fishing Boat
Feb. 4, 2006 12:00 PM
Marco Shipyard in Seattle built Norseman as one of their highly successful and seaworthy crabbers. Designed to survive the North Pacific and Bering Sea, she was a seasoned veteran of the demanding winter crab fishery in far northern waters, but in 2004 was bought out of the fishery with 24 other vessels as part of a fleet-size reduction program. My friend Phil Fuller, once an engineer for Marco and a former part owner of a sister ship, spotted her on the market in Seattle and quickly organized a partnership to purchase Norseman and give her a new life.
Bruce Whittemore, now retired, was the chief naval architect for Marco Shipyard. With very little prodding from Phil, Bruce began working up plans for the conversion. A resurrection took place on his drawing board and a very comfortable 108-ft, former Bering Sea king crab vessel, three-deck expedition yacht emerged. With a crew of five she is capable of carrying up to 12 guests in five large staterooms for extended research or expedition charters. An 850 HP Cat. diesel and 40,000-gallon fuel capacity easily enable a range of well over 10,000 miles.
Since the Seattle waterfront is the major repair and refit center for the diverse and lucrative North Pacific fishing fleet, top-quality welding, carpentry, electrical, and painting contractors were available, and following an extensive three-month refit Norseman sailed on her first charter to Seward, Alaska where we would embark researchers from the Alaska SeaLife Center.
Thirty years as a yacht and fishing boat captain had conditioned me for the unexpected, but the situation now confronting me seemed as perplexing as the town connected to the dock where I was standing. Captain Nina, head of Phillips Cruises and Tours in this port, was enumerating the reasons we could not remain at their dock. “But,” I protested, “We will pay one of your employees to provide the required security.” Nina quickly countered my obviously inadequate offer, “That won’t do, but four bottles of Chardonnay will allow you to remain overnight.” She ended our phone conversation by telling me she’d been watching our arrival in her pajamas from the tower and would visit later for a tour of our vessel. “Chardonnay, pajamas, tower?” What sort of a place is this stuck to the base of a cliff under a hanging glacier? Welcome to Whittier, Alaska: this should be interesting!
Martin, the engineer aboard Captain Nina’s command the Klondike Express soon appeared, arranged a hose for fresh water, and helped with our gangway and lines as we prepared for the arrival of our guests. Bruce and Keren Whittemore soon arrived from Seattle via Anchorage to take part in the remainder of our shakedown and repositioning voyage.
With an immediate need to beef up our onboard wine stores and an intense curiosity about the town, we set out to explore this little city set at the head of an awe-inspiring fiord.
We walked the waterfront where the businesses are spread out in the manner of a gold rush boomtown. Late season quiet was evident everywhere and some establishments appeared closed. There was a sign of life in a small sporting goods and hardware store. Bruce asked the clerk where we might find a liquor store, and without further comment we were directed to a location at the far end of the boardwalk. Arriving there we found the door locked. Through the window we could see a complete stock of wines and spirits in the confined space, but a sign on the door unapologetically announced a one half hour opening each week – darn, we had missed it by two days!
A small note on the door provided an alternative: “In case of a beer emergency call...” We made the call and before long the same hardware store attendant appeared riding a tiny motorbike not much larger than a dachshund. He dismounted, opened the establishment, and again without comment or conversation served our needs and rode off – perhaps to the clinic where he was scheduled to perform surgery.
In the early evening Captain Nina, along with her husband Martin, appeared and introductions turned into a joyous celebration. At evening’s end the crafty Nina left with her four bottles of wine intact, but that was the deal and a good one all around.
Before long Whittier was left astern as we cruised east towards the heart of Prince William Sound, the crown jewel of the south central Alaskan coast. The terminus of Tebenkof Glacier seductively appeared from below the low-hanging clouds and mist as we departed Passage Canal. There would be lots to see: soaring eagles, myriad glaciers, icefalls, and snowfields adorned the Sound on a day such as this, but our thoughts were focused on a hidden treasure from the pure and productive North Pacific waters – the Pacific Oyster.