Sailboat restoration revives local maritime history

Sailboat

By Ian Ferguson

Local mariners are working to restore a wooden fishing boat that would be one of the last of its kind in working order.

The vessel, a 29-foot Columbia River salmon boat, was built in Astoria, Oregon in 1906 for the Alaska Packers Association’s (APA) Diamond NN Cannery in Naknek, Alaska. Trident Seafood Corporation, which operated the Diamond NN Cannery, recently donated the well-used vessel to Drayton Harbor Maritime (DHM), which runs the APA Museum on Semiahmoo spit where another Columbia River salmon boat from the same cannery resides.

Work on the boat is being performed by DHM director Richard C. Sturgill, Jake Jacobson, Steve Alaniz, Graham Hunter and others. Norm Walsh, owner of Walsh Marine on Marine Drive in Blaine, has set aside space for the restoration.

Volunteers are currently determining the boat’s volume which is required before it can be used as a passenger vessel after the restoration is completed.

These types of boats were first used on the Sacramento River in California, but quickly became popular in the Columbia River salmon fishery. With their double-ended, sturdy design they were ideal for salmon fishing. Due to their utility as salmon boats they made their way up the northwest coast, and by 1884 they were fishing in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.

The boats became so popular in Bristol Bay they are also known as Bristol Bay sailboats or simply “Bristol Bays.” They remained the go-to Bristol Bay salmon boat until 1951, the first year powerboats were allowed in the fishery.

In all, an estimated 8,000 Bristol Bay sailboats were built. When powered vessels entered the industry, the boats became obsolete, and few have survived the ensuing decades intact.

“The Bristol Bay sailboat is wholly unique to the west coast,” Sturgill said. “There are only a handful left, and only a few of those are seaworthy. When this is finished, it may be the only faithfully restored, museum-quality example in existence.”

Sturgill hopes the restored sailboat will serve as a teaching vessel for youth and adults to learn how to sail, as a ferry for tourists and as a piece of living maritime history.

“It would be the salt-water sister to the boat on display in the APA Maritime Museum and provide a hands-on experience for maritime history and interpretation,” Sturgill said. “It would help tell the story of the APA canneries up and down the west coast, including the cannery that once operated on Semiahmoo spit.”

On April 17, Sturgill and Hunter took measurements to calculate the boat’s tonnage, a volumetric measure of a boat’s useful capacity. U.S. law requires a minimum of five tons for a boat to be able to carry up to six passengers.

“Because it was built so long ago, we can’t prove its tonnage unless we measure it,” Sturgill said.

Next steps in the restoration include the replacement of several outer planks with newly bent strips of yellow cedar. Alaniz purchased the yellow cedar being used for the project from the Diamond NN Cannery when it closed 40 years ago, adding to the authenticity of the repairs.

“Yellow cedar has a clear vertical grain and it’s been heavily logged on the west coast, so it’s hard to find,” Sturgill said.

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