Local maritime organization restoring 114-year-old fishing boat

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Slamming salmon onto the fishing boat was part of the job. It was the 1970s in Bristol Bay, Alaska and Richard Sturgill, then 31 years old, had recently decided to make a career of commercial fishing. He was experiencing his first summer in the industry, which was at its North American peak. Sturgill and his shipmate ended that five-week season with 60,000 pounds of King salmon.

“That experience was my baptism into fishing,” Sturgill said.

Five decades later, Sturgill is now working to preserve the history of the same type of fishing boat he once navigated through rough West Coast waters. He is helping to restore a fishing boat that was built in 1906 for the Alaska Packers Association’s Diamond NN Cannery on the south Naknek River in Bristol Bay.

A remnant of a bygone era of handcrafted boats, it is one of the last of its kind. Between 1884 and 1951, about 8,000 existed. A 1951 law that required motors on commercial fishing boats resulted in the majority of these boats being either converted or burned. Today, fewer than five original vessels remain of the type that Sturgill launched his commercial fishing career on. 

“I wanted to go fishing just like somebody else wanted to be a cowboy,” Sturgill said, recalling his years hauling in salmon. “It was quite the adventure but I have no regrets. Got a lot of stories and raised a family.”

Sturgill stands in his makeshift shop in Blaine that houses the Bristol Bay fishing boat, now 114 years old. The boat’s skeleton is exposed as Sturgill and his volunteers work to strip down its original Port Orford cedar hull with Alaskan yellow cedar frames.

The boat was donated by Seattle-based Trident Seafoods in 2013 to Drayton Harbor Maritime, a non-profit that Sturgill founded with the goal of preserving the maritime history of Drayton Harbor and its surrounding waters. At the time of its donation, the boat was ready to be put on display, but Sturgill thought it needed to reach water again.

“Had I known how in disrepair this boat was, I probably would have chickened out,” Sturgill said. “Thankfully, we didn’t realize what we were getting into until we got into it and said, ‘We’re doing it.’ Then you just buck up to it and meet the challenge.”

After sitting in the damp Pacific Northwest for years, the boat’s rotting wood is the restoration’s biggest challenge, Sturgill said. If the current crew worked non-stop to replace the 50 wooden frames on the boat, it would take 31 days or about 750 hours. Sturgill is committed to completing the boat by this summer.

More volunteers are needed for the project, Sturgill said. The team currently consists of only a few volunteers, but Sturgill hopes that will soon change, now that most of the specialized work has been finished. Community members with relevant skills are invited to join the effort, including those who can help sand the wood and apply the finishing paint to the exterior.

A five-gallon water jug filled with coins sits in Sturgill’s shop as a reminder of the time and money that has gone into the project. Along with volunteers, the rebuild wouldn’t be possible without the help of gracious community donors over the years, Sturgill said. He is especially grateful to Norm Walsh, owner of Walsh Marine, who helped Sturgill house the boat before it was moved to Sturgill’s shop.

Steve Alaniz became the boat’s shipwright after reading a 2013 Bellingham Herald article about Sturgill’s mission to rebuild the boat. This boat hit home for Alaniz, who worked in the Naknek River cannery for which the boat was originally built. He also had a long history of working on boats, starting in his early teens.

Alaniz said that when he started at the cannery in 1980, most boats were made of wood. By the time he left in 2014, only one wooden boat remained. Lumber that Alaniz obtained from the cannery is being used on the restored boat.

Having someone who worked in the same cannery that the boat originally fished for adds to the rarity of its rebuild, Sturgill said. Alaniz joining the team was one of the best things to happen for the project, said Sturgill, who oversees and assists Alaniz with the rebuild.

“We’re to the point in our friendship where we can argue a lot and enjoy it,” Alaniz said of his relationship with Sturgill. “But we don’t really argue that much.”

Trident Seafoods acquired the Alaska Packers Association’s Diamond NN Cannery in 1982. Trident donated the boat to Drayton Harbor Maritime in 2013 after the Blaine non-profit helped in the 1997 restoration of the Plover ferry, the second oldest foot passenger ferry in Washington state that once transported cannery workers between Blaine and the old APA cannery on the Semiahmoo Spit.

The old cannery on the Semiahmoo Spit, now converted to a museum, houses a sister boat to the Bristol Bay vessel that Sturgill and Alaniz are restoring. The museum’s fishing boat operated out of the very same Alaska cannery.

Katherine Ringsmuth was born in Semiahmoo where her father got his start in the cannery business that eventually landed him at the Naknek River cannery. Now, Ringsmuth is working in Alaska to nominate the Naknek River cannery for the U.S. National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places.

“Very rarely do boats maintain their historical integrity and good shape and convey the stories of people who worked in them,” Ringsmuth said. She applauded Sturgill and Alaniz for their efforts to preserve a part of their shared history.

The Center for Wooden Boats on Lake Union in Seattle also houses a sister boat, Admirable, which Sturgill hopes to race once the Bristol Bay vessel is complete.

Sturgill expects the Bristol Bay boat to rival the Plover, which offers boating experiences out of Blaine and Semiahmoo every summer. In order to generate revenue to pay for its expenses, the completed fishing boat will offer excursions to the Semiahmoo Resort’s corporate clientele and the public, who will be able to learn about the region’s maritime history. Sturgill, who is not profiting from the boat, will use any leftover funds to educate children through sailing excursions. Once the boat is up and running, it will be able to support itself without donations from the community.

The Bristol Bay boat will receive a certificate of inspection from the U.S. Coast Guard upon completion, ensuring the safety of all passengers aboard the vessel. 

“This boat is already 114 years old,” Sturgill said of the boat, which originally had an eight-year lifespan. “When we get it finished, it will be good for another hundred years or more.”

Prospective volunteers or those wishing to donate to Drayton Harbor Maritime are encouraged to call Sturgill at 360/332-5742. More information on the boat restoration project can be found online at draytonharbormaritime.com.

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