Mon, January 13, 2014

The ‘Tom & Al’

By Rebecca Poulson
A number of years ago, a photographer working with the E. W. Merrill collection at Sheldon Jackson College made photographic prints from some of the glass plate negatives; this summer, Sitkan Lynne Chassin donated this print, of the Tom & Al careened on the beach of Sitka Channel, to the Sitka Maritime Heritage Society.
The Tom & Al on the beach at Sitka. (E. W. Merrill)

The location is the beach of what is now Katlian Street in the historic Indian Village of Sitka. In the background is Japonski Island, which at the time was a military reserve. The two large buildings, one of which is still standing today, are for storing coal for government ships, such as the revenue cutters.
This photo was shot some time after 1907, which was when the radio towers visible in the background were constructed.
The Tom & Al is a sort of sister ship to the famous King & Winge, a classic halibut schooner built in 1914 by the West Seattle firm of the same name, owned by Thomas J. King and Albert L. Winge. According to the “King and Winge Shipbuilding Company” page on Wikipedia, the Tom & Al had been built as the Ragnhildin 1900, and later acquired and renamed by the company.

The King & Winge, on the other hand, was a classic, dashing, modern halibut schooner. Her first voyage was an arctic expedition, where she was also used to pick up survivors of the Karluk expedition from Wrangell Island. She was a fishing boat, possibly a rum runner, a Columbia Bar pilot boat for three decades, and finally a fishing boat from 1962 until sinking in the Bering Sea in 1994.

(The Tom & Al was used for a short time as a whaler in the early 1960s, according to the Offbeat Oregon History blog, which also has a good image of the King & Winge.)
The Tom & Al was probably a halibut schooner in this photo. In the heyday of the cod and halibut schooners, the men went out in the dories – flat-bottomed boats we see here were stacked on deck – to fish, and would return to the mother ship with their catch.
It was brutally hard and dangerous work, with fishermen in small boats on the open ocean, vulnerable to fog, storm, and any mishap that might occur when you’re working with hooks, knives, and fish. The yards and the fishery were dominated by Scandinavians, most of them immigrants: Albert Winge was a native of Norway.
Eventually, the schooner itself was used to set and pick up gear, the way it’s still done today: the boat sets out long lines, of lengths of line known as “skates” for the shape of the canvas squares some boats still use to tie up the coils of line. Each has an eye spliced into each end, and they are tied together end to end with sheet bends (or more properly, beckett hitches). This is a knot that you can untie even after it’s been pulled brutally tight. Each end of the ground line gets an anchor, a float line and a float and flag pole to mark it.
Baited hooks are attached to the ground line with gangions (pronounced gan-yun), a word that seems to come from the fact that they are ganged or grouped along the main line. One end is fastened into the ground line, and the other end is attached to the hook. The knot used for the loops on the ends of the gangion, the gangion knot, seems to be unique to this purpose.
Several of the classic halibut schooners, built a century ago as the latest in marine technology, are still actively fishing. These include the Republic, built in 1914, the same year as the King & Winge. She is home ported here in Sitka and looks ready for her next 100 years of service.

The survival of halibut schooners is a testament to the stout construction standards of the yards, and to the value placed on these aesthetic and functional vessels by their owners. It is also testament to the success of fisheries conservation programs, so that we have a viable halibut fishery today.