“I think for some reason I’m attracted to doing difficult things,” artist and commercial fisherman Tom Crestodina said, explaining the life he’s carved out on his own terms. Yet before he ever sailed north to work his first season at sea, he added, “I couldn’t have imagined how hard the work could be.”
Crestodina’s penchant for avoiding the easy route is evident in his recently published “Working Boats: An Inside Look at Ten Amazing Watercraft.”
The book, though marketed to children, will appeal to all ages. It features cutaway drawings of several of the most prominent types of vessels operating in Alaska waters. The exhaustively detailed illustrations show the interior and exterior workings of different types of fishing boats, a research ship, a Coast Guard cutter, and even a passenger and car ferry, as well as those who work on them.
“I tried to make vessels that were representative of different fisheries, of different industries,” Crestodina said. “And the fun thing about that is that the range of vessels and walks of life that happen onboard of them is so huge that it became my desire to document the boats of the world.”
Crestodina admits that’s a tall order, and one he’ll never fully complete. Partly because there are too many types of boats, but also because of his work method. In each drawing, Crestodina insists on meticulous accuracy as he depicts what can be found behind a fishing boat’s hull, where fish are stored, food is prepared for the crew, engines chug, and more. “The cutaways are intended to speak to the workers and the owners and the people who have given their lives to these industries and these trades,” he explained.
“I want to make it fun for people in the industry,” he added, noting the whimsical but very accurate details that emerge with close examination of some scenes. In one, he included socks hanging to dry in the engine room of a salmon seiner. “That’s a little joke from the inside to show, that’s something we do, because this is the warmest and driest spot on the boat and that’s where my socks hang.”
Life on a boat was not something Crestodina might have been expected to pursue. Other than spending a couple of his teen years in Oregon, he grew up in Chicago, where he says, “I knew nothing about the ocean.” He did know how to draw, however. It was something he began doing before he can remember, and he was one of those kids who would get in trouble for doodling during math class.
After high school, he entered what he calls his “beatnik period” when he wandered around a bit, funding his travels in part by selling drawings to people he encountered. Crestodina eventually landed in Seattle in 1994, where one evening he met a maritime engineer, and “the two of us sat together for hours. He was telling me about his career and his life and sailing across the Atlantic alone in a sailboat, and I was fascinated. The next day I went and got a job at the boatyard in Shilshole Bay in Seattle, and the boats and sea life became my passion.”
He enrolled in Seattle Maritime Academy and earned his degree in 1999 in maritime engineering. “The day that I was set to graduate and get my certificate,” he said, “I had already met the crew and captain of this beautiful 1947 wooden fishing boat that was going salmon fishing in Southeast Alaska. They took me away with them. I didn’t go to my graduation ceremony, I went to Sitka instead. And I’ve been fishing ever since.”
Crestodina has worked on that boat, the Alsek, almost every summer since, and after holding nearly every job onboard — “I was never the cook,” he said — he now captains it. “What hooked me on fishing was, it asked so much of me. It forced me to find my limits and go beyond them.”
Crestodina kept pushing his limits on shore as well. He wanted to master a Slavic language, so he began spending winters in Poland, taking classes and meeting his now-wife Ania. He maintained this schedule until 2008, when he decided to take a break from fishing after his first son was born. “Having a child completely changes your priorities and changes your life,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine going away when he was a baby.”
By 2011, the price of salmon had risen so high that Crestodina couldn’t resist returning to fishing. In 2013 the couple was able to take his summer earnings and settle in Bellingham, Washington, where the family, which now numbers four, still lives.
It was during that 2011 season that Crestodina began his cutaway drawings. “I missed my little boy so much that sometimes it was like physical pain,” he remembered. He decided to draw the Alsek for his son as a way of maintaining a connection while he was so far away. “I ended up making a cutaway drawing that was kind of in the style of the Richard Scarry books that I loved so much when I was little,” he said. Crestodina remembered an image of a ship in “What Do People Do All Day?,” one of Scarry’s most beloved books. “I wanted to make something that was kind of like that for my son.”
Crestodina began doing similarly detailed drawings of other vessels, and pretty soon, he said, “people in the industry who had seen what I was doing started asking me to make drawings of their boats and show their lives.”
Crestodina launched a web store for his prints in 2013, and they began to appearing on walls in Northwest homes and businesses. “Pictures that I had hanging in a coffee shop in Seattle attracted the attention of the editors at Sasquatch Books, which is a Seattle publishing company.”
After agreeing to create a children’s book, “I spent a lot of time interviewing and talking to people who were working on boats that I’ve never worked on myself,” he said of his research process. “I wanted to share their stories too.” For the book, Crestodina mostly used new images, not his existing ones, and given his attention to detail, this was never something he would complete quickly.
“I do things the hard way,” he admitted. One of the drawings is of a crabber. “There are thousands of crabs in the hold,” he said of what is shown by the cutaway look inside. “That took days to make those.” Additionally, as he worked on the image, he realized he had made some errors and started over. “I drew most of those crabs twice.”
A mostly self-taught artist, Crestodina wanted to honor the hard work of those engaged in the trades. “There aren’t that many people that know them from the inside, and can share those skills and that knowledge, and also the ethics and the mentalities, and help people find the strength to do those hard things.”
The book, he concluded, “celebrates work as such an important part of our lives. That was an aim we were going towards. It’s in the title. It’s really about working people.”