|Schooner SOPHIE CHRISTENSON|
Coming home from the Bering Sea.
Photo dated 2 years before James Flynn story below.
Original photo from the S.P.H.S.©
"James N. Flynn of Issaquah and his cousin, Richard Holder of Langley, Whidbey Island, remember codfishing in the Bering Sea aboard the four-masted SOPHIE CHRISTENSON as the most difficult $300 they ever earned.
Flynn kept a pencilled 1937 journal of their ordeal. Most of the pages were accidentally lost, but his memory is keen. The SOPHIE'S exploits, and those of her captain, J.E. Shields, are documented.
Men like Flynn and Holder are significant to me because each day I can look out my office window, north over Lake Union, and see Seattle's last remaining sailing ship, the forlorn-looking three-masted WAWONA. She, too, was a codfisher in the Bering Sea, at times within hailing distance of the SOPHIE.
Equally important, Flynn's penciled journal and his recollections convince me that wooden ships were manned by men of iron. Ashore, many of the men were stumbling, rum-soaked derelicts. One readily admitted he chose thieving to working for wages. Two were tough, grizzled men in their 80s who had been at sea all their adult lives. One was a stowaway deaf mute. There were 45 men in all, and every one performed courageously and well.
One day, Flynn handed me the age-yellowed pages of his journal. I looked at them and asked what would have been the title. He grinned and said, "Five Months Without a Bath."
This is James N. Flynn's story.
❖ ❖ ❖
My cousin, Rich, was only 17 but he was around 6 feet and husky. I was 22, and both of us and been toughened by manual labor. Neither of us and been at sea. We hired on as salters, helped by 'connections.' Times were lean.
We were aboard the SOPHIE somewhere near Pier 51, waiting to be towed by tug beyond Cape Flattery. It took seven hrs to get the crew on board. They were trying to drink enough to last them for five months.
I was in awe. Thirty men out of their drunken minds. The mates would herd a group aboard, then go into the taverns for the others. While the mates were gone, those on board would wander ashore again.
We got under way in the evening, in tow. Up on the forecastle, the jugs and bottles were open. They were drinking everything dry before we were to let go of the tow line.
When the tug's tow line let go, beyond Cape Flattery, the drinking stopped. According to some kind of code, all remaining booze was tossed overboard.
Then began a weird transformation in the men, like a Jekyll-Hyde change. The drunks straightened up and became sailors. They cleansed themselves, changed clothing and went to work. We hoisted sails and got under way. I went aloft and was scared at the 100-foot height, but the old hands understood and helped me.
|Aloft on SOPHIE CHRISTENSON|
Undated, unknown fishermen,
Courtesy of R.R. Burke
I learned that if you are willing to pitch in, you get help and respect.
The men were mechanical wizards. We had 22 fishing dories aboard, each equipped with a 10-HP Johnson outboard engine (only recently the dories had been sail-powered.) The men disassembled the engines to basic pieces on the docks, right down to needle valves. They cleansed and inspected every part, then reassembled the engines and honed them to perfection, as if a man's life depended on a perfect engine. It did.
We hauled out ropes and lines, canvas and brass. The old-timers went to work with their needles and twine. The dress gang sharpened knives.
|Aboard Fishing Schooner SOPHIE CHRISTENSON|
Unknown date, crew or photographer.
Click to enlarge.
Courtesy of R.R. Burke
We sailed through an Aleutian pass, probably Unimak, and into the Bering Sea.
Now, we're organized into rosters: 23 men listed as fishermen, 18 in the dress gang. The deck fisherman was Jalmar, the tongue cutter was Mac, the watchman was Harry, and the cooks were Walter and Frank. I did not record last names, but two men signed themselves as Cash Money and No Dory.
The captain, J.E. Shields, and his brother and son owned the codfish packing plant at Poulsbo, the SOPHIE, C.A. THAYER and MY NORDIC MAID.
Captain Shields operated the ship's store and, as we sailed northward into cold, sold us warm clothing and foul-weather gear as desired. He was the doctor, provisioner, chaplain, navigator, and judge.
But crewmen settled their differences among themselves. When Finns and Swedes became clannish and segregated themselves, we insisted that everybody speak English. AS for medical aid, nobody during the 4 1/2 months became ill in that adverse climate––no flu, no colds, no lung congestion. Health was excellent.
The SOPHIE was traditionally a good-luck ship. By reputation, illness or storm damage never enfeebled her. By 9 July we had taken and salted down 212,154 cod. Fourth July is memorable, not because it was a holiday, but because a one-day blizzard, or williwaw, iced the decks and sent us below.
There was no heat in the crew's forecastle and no electric lights. We had no bathing facilities, except for buckets or whatever we improvised. The toilet was on the weather deck, extending over the side.
These dorymen awed me.
|Crew of SOPHIE CHRISTENSON|
Undated, unknown crew names,
Courtesy of RR Burke.
They fished from dawn to dusk, and there wasn't much darkness. We worked up to 18 hours a day. They did not wear life preservers, because they reasoned the cold water would finish them in seven minutes. They would come back to the ship, heavily laden, and disappear behind giant waves. They would come alongside to mountainous gray swells and pitchfork their catches to us on deck, using one-prong forks.
Our hands were calloused like dogs' paws by rock salt and sea water. Our hands would split wide open and bleed. Men would strike matches on their horny palms. One common healing balm for split hands was human urine––our own.
Maybe you have heard of the codfishermen's war against the Japanese. The Japanese fishing ships laid a net around us, entirely hemming us in. The captain was infuriated and gave orders to sail through it, ram our way out. We became entangled, our rudder was disable, and men tried to dive down and cut us fee. The cold water immobilized them. Finally, using knives attached to the ends of poles, we cut our way free of the nets. Captain Shields threatened to shoot at the encroachers with rifles, but he was dissuaded. (But the next year, in 1938, he instigated an arms buildup among fishermen which bordered on a shootout.)
We returned to Seattle in late August 1937. I was a year older, having observed my 23rd birthday on 8 May. We sailed into Poulsbo, to Captain Shields' codfish processing plant, carrying about 400,000 pounds of cod. We had been gone about 4 1/2 months, and my wages were $300 net.
|Schooner SOPHIE CHRISTENSON|
Home at winter moorage, Seattle, WA.
1941 photo by James A. Turner from
the Archives of the S.P.H.S.©
Many of the crewmen collected their pay and resumed where they left off––in the taverns. My cousin and I returned to Issaquah in time for the potato harvest in the Yakima area. I had gained 25 pounds.
I know you wonder whether I would sail aboard the SOPHIE again. Yes, I would––as a young man."
Above text from: My Waterfront. Carter, Glenn, Seattle, WA. Seagull Books Co. 1977.