As parades go, the one starting at Seattle’s Fishermen’s
Terminal at 10 a.m. Thursday will be a bit unusual:
No clowns. No marching bands. No pretty girls waving to the crowds.
Instead, the waterborne procession starting at the sound of a ship’s horn west of the Ballard Bridge will give the public a glimpse of Seattle maritime history: nine longline wooden schooners that are based in Seattle and still travel to Alaska to fish.
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If you miss the parade, you can still see the boats — three of which are more than a century old — on South Lake Union for a couple of weeks, before they head north for halibut season in Alaska.
You won’t be able to board the boats, which will be moored off South Lake Union Park. They’re geared up for fishing, not visitors.
But you will be able to learn about them and the role they’ve played in Seattle history at a Center for Wooden Boats exhibit, “Highliners: Boats of the Century,” which opens Saturday and runs through next fall. (A “highliner,” in nautical slang, is an elite, prolific fisherman.)
“This is very much a living history” said University of Washington history professor Bruce Hevly, whose students did research that helped shape the exhibit.
Hevly’s students explored technological changes that have kept the old boats viable, the social history of those who built and operated the vessels and how the fleet and related activities helped shape Northwest coastal communities.
The exhibit marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association, a trade group of fishing-boat operators with goals of promoting safety, ensuring competitive pricing for fish and the use of gear that minimizes damage to other species.
Betsy Davis, executive director of the Center for Wooden Boats, said, “The sustainable fishing techniques this fleet developed are a key reason that Pacific fisheries have not been overfished, and why they continue to bring thousands of jobs to Seattle’s economy.”
By some estimates, the halibut and black cod seasons beginning March 8 will generate about $1 billion in economic activity, much of that in the Seattle area.
It’s part of an overall commercial fishing fleet that Port of Seattle Commission Co-President Stephanie Bowman said “pours about $5 billion dollars into our economy every year through its fish catch and the thousands of jobs it sustains both on land and at sea.”
About 300 Seattle-based boats are expect
ed to head to Alaska for the season. Among them will be fewer than 20 vessels from a wooden-boat fleet that once numbered over 150, according to the Center for Wooden Boats.
The oldest boats in Thursday’s procession — all built in 1913 — will be the 87-foot Vansee and the 73-foot Polaris, both built in Seattle’s Salmon Bay by Norway native John Strand, and the 66-foot Seymour, built in Tacoma.
Despite their age, these boats “are still remarkably suited to the work they do,” said Per Odegaard of Edmonds, owner of the Vansee, which has been in his family since the 1950s.
The wooden schooners are narrow (18-foot beam) which makes them relatively economical to propel, and their frames of tight-grained old-growth Douglas fir are resistant to rot. But old-growth wood is getting harder to find, making repairs increasingly expensive.
Although the Vansee was built in 1913, you might have to look pretty hard to find any particular feature that dates back that far, possibly just the keel, frame and some of the planking, Odegaard said.
The many modifications that have made the boat safer and more productive have included raising the bow and pilot house, enclosing the bait shed, replacing the gasoline engine with a diesel one and adding state-of-the-art navigational systems.
Shawn McManus, Odegaard’s brother-in-law and current skipper of the Vansee, describes how the vessel fishes for halibut:
The crew lays anchored lines about two miles long, with baited hooks every 17 feet, to catch halibut between 60 and 1,800 feet below the surface. That gear then “soaks” for about five hours before the Vansee returns to bring in the line and the catch — halibut that average about 20 to 30 pounds but can be up to 300 pounds or more.
The boat also fishes for black cod, a smaller fish that’s often found as much as 3,000 feet deep.
Wooden boats are giving way to metal ones partly because the newer metal vessels have large desks that can accommodate stacks of crab pots, increasing their versatility and productivity.
Bob Alverson, manager of the Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association, said commercial fishing in general, despite its defining role in Seattle’s history, culture and economy, remains largely hidden or ignored.
“Once the iron doors at the locks swing closed behind us,” he said. “We’re kind of like out of sight, out of mind.”
Jack Broom: email@example.com or 206-464-2222