|Captain John E. Shields|
Dated 12 September 1948
Original photo from the archives of the S. P. H. S.©
Records or not, the SOPHIE had just concluded her finest trip with some $30,000 pay to divide among her crew of forty-one. She brought back one black mark––empty dory No. 13. It had been found after a five-day southeasterly gale and twenty-eight year old Sven Markstrom was missing.
Capt. Shields and 2nd Mate McEachran told of days in the Bering Sea when a gray cloud-rack scudded over the mastheads as she labored through a smother that swept her decks from the jib boom to taffrail. In this sea, the dories, swung over the side one by one, were whirled away and out of sight in the great, gray waves churned along the schooner's sides.
Out in the dories each fisherman was alone between turbulent sea and sky, his outboard motor keeping him underway as the little craft soared and plunged, fishing all the time until the load crowded the gunwales. Then back toward the schooner and after making fast his falls, each man would dive like a porpoise for the decks as the sea swung him level with the pitching rail.
The men told of that record day––24 July––when the dories came out of the fog laden with enough fish to swamp the stay-aboard crew that had to split and salt the catch and everyone had visions of gold at the end of the rainbow.
The captain and men spoke low when they talked of that other day when Sven Markstrom was lost to leeward in the gale. They could not see the man alone in the dory as the ship lay miles away but they knew the trampling thunder of an Arctic sea towering out of sight. Somehow they knew this man would never come back yet waited in silence under a beacon flare on the heaving deck. Five days later when the gale had blown itself out they found the empty dory. The men accepted this stoically as a part of codfishing in the Bering Sea.
The SOPHIE CHRISTENSON always made good newspaper copy. Writing in The Seattle Star, 28 April 1937, H. E. Jamison told of the preparations for another five-months stay in the north.
Towering above the dock sheds the four masts of the SOPHIE CHRISTENSON have been beckoning waterfront wanderers to Pier Four. Monday, 22 dories were snuggled up to the port side of the windjammer, like so many chicks on a frosty morning.
They were waiting patiently to be hoisted aboard and nested 'tween decks for their long trek to Bristol Bay. Once beyond 'Smoking Moses' (Mount Shishaldin) in the Aleutians, these frail craft will be manned by lusty codfishermen.
Capt. John Shields, large and rosy-cheeked, looking more like a small town business man than a deep sea fisherman, was busy looking after last minute details and checking supplies aboard. He did manage to take time out to tell me he had 400 tons of salt aboard and that in the five months they'd be gone he hoped to bring back at least 600 tons of codfish.
The fishermen work on a share basis, while the others are on a monthly salary. Aside from the officers, the 'others' are mostly the dress gang––those who stay aboard, dress and clean the fish before they are passed to the salters in the holds.
The railings of the SOPHIE are scarred deep by lines from those aboard who fish when time lags heavy on their hands.
The fisherman I was talking to had been battling the waters of Bristol Bay for 23 years. He told me that in the old days the dories were fitted with leg-o'-mutton sails. When it blew up a storm the fishermen, who could not get back to the mother ship, fashioned a sea anchor from a sail, and hove to. Occasionally men were lost.
Now the 16-ft dories are equipped with 12-HP motors. These light motors are installed in a well that is entirely decked over. The bows are fitted with canvas shields to break the spray that comes aboard.
The men fish from dawn to dark. They are not supposed to go much farther than five or six miles from their vessel and keep a weather eye peeled for the signal that warns them the barometer is taking a nose dive. When the jib of the mother ship is hoisted they are supposed to make for it and batten down.
The cod is a bottom fish or, as my informant told me, a 'gurry sucker'. The mother ship anchors on the banks and the dories, when they are dropped over the side, drift with the tide, dragging an anchor around one of the flukes of which has been fastened a half hitch. This hitch on a taut line, robs the anchor of its effectiveness. The anchor bumps along the bottom, somewhat checking the speed of the dory. The fisherman has a line in each hand, one over each side of his craft, and as soon as he strikes good fishing he pays out all his anchor line. The slack causes the half hitch to come adrift and the anchor holds.
As soon as he has a load he hauls up the anchor on a handy gurdy, cranks up his engine and heads back to the ship. After the fish are loaded aboard the schooner he goes aboard for a 'mug up.' The table is never unset and the fishermen eat all they can whenever they can. "They fed swell on the schooners," said my fisherman.
If he should catch any fish he drifts back toward the mother ship when the tide turns and keeps at it until he has a load.
The fishermen average over and above expenses, about $500, or about $100 per month.
Incidentally, the fishermen never touch the fish with their hands. As soon as they are hauled alongside they slit the throats to bleed them. Then by skillfully manipulating their gaffs, they extricate the hook. They pitchfork them aboard the mother ship with along handled single-prong fork, called a pew.
All fishermen think theirs is the toughest of all fishing, but there is no doubt that dawn-to-dusk codfishing ranks close to halibut fishing for arduous work."
Words only from: Fish and Ships. Ralph Andrews and A. K. Larssen.
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|These 9 donated photos|
aboard the Schooner SOPHIE CHRISTENSON
are unidentified for date and identity
of fishermen. Can you help us with
names of any crew?