Journal: Tuna Fishing

The summer of 1977 I had the good fortune of fishing for albacore tuna aboard a 62 foot halibut schooner. Built in 1920, the Coolidge was directly descended from a long line of heavily built North Sea sail powered fishing vessels. The halibut schooner fleet was comprised primarily of people of Scandinavian descent living primarily in Ballard, Washington. Though they mostly fished for halibut in Alaska they’d sometimes fish for albacore tuna as far south as Mexico when the halibut season ended. The Coolidge did not have refrigeration so we needed to off-load every 16 days.

Following are some excerpts from a journal I kept that summer.

Saturday, August 27th, 1977.

Westport, Washington. She’s a graceful, massively constructed, old bird. Tucked behind her bulwarks a wheelhouse looks minuscule on such a substantial hull. The decks are wood, sealed with black pine tar. Winches and machines are everywhere. Sixty two feet long, the Coolidge has a tall straight bow and sleek lines characteristic of a halibut schooner. A round bottomed boat, she rolls even when in port tied to a dock.

Harold’s cabin consists of a bunk in the wheelhouse. I have the entire forecastle to myself. Four upper and lower sea bunks line each side for a total of eight. A long table runs down the center with benches on both sides. Port side aft is the galley, dominated by a large diesel galley stove against the bulkhead. The forecastle of a traditional sailing ship. Five inch square frames are visible in places on eight inch centers, more frame than space between the frame.

As Harold the owner and skipper explains, halibut schooners are built using measurements off a model rather than drawings on a piece of paper. Her design evolved over centuries when folks went to sea without motors and the shape of the hull was paramount. The Coolidge is one of the faster boats in the fleet in spite of her limited power, a single Allis Chalmers truck engine.

Sept 6th. Tuesday. We’ve been running through some weather which makes everything difficult. We shut down for a while last night. The Coolidge’s riding sail holds her bow 45 degrees off the wind and waves. Sometimes she’ll sit motionless for a few seconds, then there’s a thundering crash against the side of the boat and she lurches and shudders. She’ll roll slightly one way and farther back the other way and then back the other way right up on her beam, 90 degrees over on her side, or so it seems. One doesn’t fall out of one’s bunk because it’s basically a coffin, a shoulder width box.

In the course of the night I made my way on deck toward the head. Ten foot breaking waves covered the landscape as far as the eye could see, the whitecaps aglow with phosphorescence. It was a boiling, day-glow, neon other-world.

Sept 9th: We ran through the night and much of the day south past the latitude of San Francisco. Lots of time to sleep and read. In the past days we’ve seen many Dall’s porpoises who have a shorter nose and Bottle Nosed Dolphins who have as the name implies a longer nose. The dolphins typically cross under the boat and are gone.

We got a good look at a very big whale. It swam along side for about twenty minutes. It may have been a blue whale. Enormous, smooth and unimaginably powerful, it moved with slow isometric movements, pushing down on the water with its control surfaces and accelerating. It would blow, the wind carrying spray for some distance, then arch its back applying pressure on its tail and glide under the surface. Further away we saw what appeared to be sharks and killer whales circling a carcass of some kind.

For a while we were accompanied by three bottle nosed dolphins, playing in front of the boat in a relaxed kind of way, staying close to the bow and making intricate choreographed movements, two dancing in unison, turning, jumping, diving, and the third going the opposite way in counterpoint.

The weather improved and we started catching fish, a few at a time every few hours. We fished with the Arrow, a larger halibut schooner with her wheelhouse aft and the Tryend, a smaller halibut schooner with her wheelhouse forward like the Coolidge’s. The halibut schooners are the only boats this far offshore because they are the only boats that can stand the beating.

So much working no time for the journal. The fishing is easy in that you don’t bait hooks and clean fish. It’s hard in that I’m the only crew. We’d been catching about 75 fish per day. Then the weather cleared and the catch went up to 120 fish and then as high as 270 fish. On those days work extends around the clock. Then a million boats appeared and it turned into a derby. Harold shook his head and off we went farther out to sea, 150 miles offshore.

According to Harold, the migration of albacore tuna is a bit of a mystery. They disburse into the central Pacific and then in August make their way east toward Washington, Oregon and California where nutrient upwellings from the continental shelf stock the web of life and feed this gathering of species. Albacore pursue small squid on the surface though they’ll also dive deeper in pursuit of other fish.

Being warm blooded, albacore like specific water temperatures. Following temperature gradients is a way to find the fish. They arrive off North America hungry and will bite anything, such as a brightly colored plastic squid. Porpoises never bite at the plastic squid.

When albacore first come out of the water, alive, they’re iridescent, the colors of a rainbow. Large bewildered eyes stare to the side. They flop and attempt to get themselves moving, through water, to breathe. But they slowly suffocate and the color goes out of their once beautiful flanks. They become a gray corpse to be packed away on ice. This fishing business is in spite of all the beauty not an entirely happy place.

Sept. 14th. Whatever lettuce or other greens we brought along are long gone, either consumed or victims of the ravages if nature. Entropy is constantly on the march.

Throughout the night I heard subdued chirping sounds. I ventured on deck. The moonlit sea was calm. No wind. There were no other boats in sight, just groups of porpoises as far as the eye could see in every direction. About 35 were gathered around the Coolidge. New York City in porpoise land. I wonder if they always group up like this at night and fill the water with chirping sounds.

Throughout the day as we motored further offshore the dolphins re-appeared in groups of as many as 20 and swam, diving and flying through the air. They’d drop back far behind off to one side and then accelerate and pass the boat in seconds, even though the Coolidge was going 10 knots.

About 20 dolphins swam for a while close to the bow in a complex dance. The water was crystal clear and their movements underwater clearly visible from above. They dove in tremendous swoops and turns, sometimes sounding straight down to 50 or 60 feet and climbing at 45 degrees straight out of the water, soaring through the air. They would appear on the horizon and come leaping and diving and arrive in seconds, often swimming in pairs or trios. The big leaders are first to arrive. The ones with scars on their bodies. The rest of the flock is an even mix. Sometimes a pair will repeatedly brush up against each other in a sensuous display or rub each other around in spirals. I envy their endless exuberance, their absolute freedom, no confines of dwellings roads or paths, no gravity. A three dimensional world in which to play.

I’m dreaming in full, living color every night. I dream about San Francisco’s wooden stairways and old buildings. I dreamt about an acting school in the country. I’m standing with a group in a circle. They all say something and look at me. Someone says that I should sing or something. I try to sing. They all walk away. I dreamt that a friend was studying apostrophology, the study of apostrophes, I dreamt about sneezing rats, which upon awakening turned out to be the old hull squeaking and growling in gentile waves.

Sept 15th. The weather is picking up again. I ate breakfast in the galley, one arm locked under the table for support, chasing food around a plate.

We’ve been keeping pace with the Arrow. She shows her real beauty when the weather kicks up, her tall, straight bow slicing into the seas, rising and lowering; her sleek narrow entry, her wide round midsection and low fat stern gracefully rolling along. The image of the old boat in her glory, surrounded by 100s of leaping and dancing dolphins will not be soon forgotten. They filled the half mile distance between the two boats. I watched them for half an hour from the bow, particularly a group of ten that played there. They swam under water deeper and deeper until I could no longer see them, though the water is very clear. They were all gone as suddenly as they appeared.

Sept. 16th. 60 miles from landfall. Lots of cleaning to do. Some rain helped with the decks. The sunrise this morning was a spectacular display of purple, orange, blue and gray pastels, layered in rolling lumps of clouds, streaks and stripes.

The water turned greenish brown. We saw land, then the Davenport smokestack then Santa Cruz off our port side and ultimately Moss Landing dead ahead.

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