We Alaskans

A 1945 ship, restored and ready to work another salmon run in Bristol Bay

SEWARD — When Jim Henry first saw Dolphin, an 80-foot power scow, on the beach at Portland in 2006, he knew he had to have it.

Built in 1945 by Maritime Shipyards in Seattle for the Alaska Packers Association's cannery, the old tender had been sitting there five years. In its prime, Dolphin had served the sailboat salmon fishing industry in Bristol Bay by towing the vessels out of port and later loading their catch on its open deck for transport to the canneries.

The last owner bought the vessel to ship biodiesel down the Columbia River, but strict regulations and expenses had made the venture unprofitable. Now Dolphin sat in limbo on a Portland beach.

Old wooden boats could be a problem, but Henry grew up around those vessels on Peaks Island in Casco Bay off the Maine coast. His Scottish ancestors came to the area a few hundred years ago as political prisoners and settled on Peaks and nearby islands, working as fishermen. Henry's been working in commercial fishing since he was 12 years old.

Definitely seaworthy

Dolphin's hull looked good when he first saw her in 2006, and the vessel was seaworthy even though it needed a lot of new equipment. Prospects looked good. Icicle Seafoods Seward Fisheries needed a tender for Bristol Bay and the Egegik cannery. So Henry bought the Dolphin. He spent a year getting it in better shape.

Married with three children, Henry had worked in Alaska's commercial fishing industry since 1983. Now that his kids were getting older, he saw Dolphin as an opportunity to give them a chance to know Alaska and work summers with him. The Dolphin could sleep six. For many in the industry, fishing is family — a tradition that builds strong relationships through generations.

A year's work later, the vessel was ready in 2007. No more could he just dump the catch onto the deck like in the old days. Back then Dolphin could take 200,000 pounds of fish. The new holding tanks he put on deck are cooled with seawater chilled to 31.5 degrees and hold 140,000 pounds. Five motors — beneath a deck crisscrossed with timbers — run with two large propulsion engines driving twin screws.


Beginning in 2007 and for the next decade, Henry worked on the Dolphin in Egegik.

"When I first brought it there," he said, "the mayor and his buddies came down to see it. They had all worked on her when they were young. It was interesting to listen to them tell their stories while sitting in its galley."

For the last seven years, Dolphin has wintered in Seward while Henry worked on her. Last year, after finishing the Prince William Sound salmon season in August, he again brought the vessel to the Seward Marine Industrial Center for more extensive work. The facility near Fourth of July Creek sits across Resurrection Bay from town.

"Economically it was the best choice," he said. "They have a travel lift big enough to haul me out of the water, and the best rates and space in the region."

Same technology Noah used

Henry hired Tom Maness, Matt Braden and Breann Sledge to upgrade and repair Dolphin. Braden, a crew member from Australia who has worked with Henry for many years, replaced old sections and rebuilt the wheelhouse.

Sledge and Maness caulked where the bottom planks meet the side planks. Sledge brought along her antique tools — some more than a century old — including reefing and calking irons that come in varied sizes and head shapes. The caulking mallets have metal bands around wooden heads.

"It's the same technology that Noah used to build the ark," Henry said. The basic techniques go back thousands of years.

Sledge got the tools and learned the techniques when Maness bought Nunivak, a power scow built for World War II use, from the same company that built Dolphin.

[Watch the old-time art of caulking]

The two begin by carefully twisting and working cotton — sometimes first shucking out seeds — into seams between planks. Next comes oakum, made of hemp or jute. The irons and mallets help get the material in tight. Then, using a trowel they seal it with Portland cement mixed with linseed oil. Once in the saltwater, it all swells up and becomes rock hard.

By June 10, Dolphin was in the water again and Henry expected to be off in a few days for the six-day voyage to Egegik. His crew this year includes Braden; his 19-year-old daughter, Hanna; and his 14-year-old grandson, Jordan.

Doug Capra writes from Seward. He is the author of "The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords."

Doug Capra

Doug Capra is a freelance writer from Seward.