Monday, January 2, 2012

Alaska Dory Fishing

Time and again stories surface that distinguish the humble dory as a historically significant boat. A faithful reader named Michael contacted me recently to share his passion for these simple boats. It’s always good to hear stories of how well a dory has served its owner, often against odds. The setting for this story is the yet untamed wilderness of Alaska, in the 1970’s, when young adventurers arrived with dreams of becoming wealthy salmon fishermen.

Michael begins his tale:

“My first dory was by Grunwald of Aeolus Boatworks in Davenport, CA. It was built to the lines of the Higgins and Gifford Dory in Chappelle's American Small Sailing Craft.”

“I took it to Alaska on a boat trailer in 1972 and it's still there. A couple of youngsters made an extended camping trip in her a couple years ago but she's too far gone to be trustworthy now.”

“The plywood planks are lapped and are backed by full-length battens inside, very strong construction. I can't begin to describe how horribly I mistreated that boat in Alaska. It lived the life of a neglected livery boat most of the time. She also transported deer and packed water to a winter cabin. That dory enabled a safe subsistence lifestyle in a very remote place.”

“I used to row this dory on San Francisco Bay, often crossing at night. I picked up birds during an oil spill, in 1971.
In 1972 I towed the boat on her trailer to Haines, Alaska then by ferry to Juneau, and then motored with a British Seagull engine to a small fishing village where I began my commercial fishing career.”

“After fishing the Gulf of Alaska for a couple years, I stashed the boat at a cabin on the outside coast and a trapper found her, enlarged the motor well to make room for a great big outboard, and then lost the boat.”

“I was in California at the time arranging financing to buy a commercial trolling boat when I got a call from the Coast Guard wanting to know if I was dead. It seems a Red Stack tug traversing the Fairweather Grounds with a double tow found the boat sunk and drifting. The skipper made a circle of a mile diameter and picked up the boat, taking her to Seattle, where I found her and arranged for passage back to SE Alaska on the deck of a tender.”

This hard working and long lived Higgins and Gifford Dory, shown above, beached on the rocks, now belongs to Omen Wild, a native Alaskan.
Photo is courtesy of Omen.

Michael continues:

“This is Raven, my current Grunwald dory. The flare angle is greater than any other dory I've measured. This makes her tiddly when light, but easy to row, even in a breeze.”

“I plan to close up the motor well, install water stowage, rig for sailing, and take on a long trip in the foreseeable future, possibly Puget Sound to Cross Sound in SE Alaska.”

Michael loves dories and has plans to build another (when he gets done with a couple kayaks he has in the works). This one will be a bigger cruising dory.

“The boat I currently dream of building is R.D. Culler's cowhorn dory, rigged with a balance lug yawl or junk sail, and set up like the Atlantic rowing dory boats for long distance cruising."
"I plan to make a planking model this winter. The cowhorn dory is on page six of Skiffs and Schooners. It is the size of a St Pierre but more moderate in rocker and sheer. She is very close to a 125% scale-up of Alfred Johnson's Centennial, which John Gardner documented in Wooden Boats to Build and Use, on page 53.”

Michael has been a visitor here for some time and I’m happy to finally make his acquaintance.

Welcome to the Doryman family, Michael! We’d really like to see that model when you’re done.


Dave Z said...

You may have run across this, but R.N DeArmond wrote A Voyage in a Dory: From Sitka to Tacoma by Oars, Sail, and Tow Rope, which dovetails with this post.

Dories were extensively used on Halibut Schooners, too. They'd carry them, stacked nested on deck, and launch fishermen to handline from them. The mothership would work windward all day, then drift down to pick up the fleet late in the day. Often missed one or many. Wasn't unheard-of for a lost dory to carry its crew through a storm that sunk the bigger boat.

Anke and I have towed light plywood dories for years in SE Alaska. Love 'em for load-carrying, covering distance, riding seas, and beaching.

doryman said...

Dave, we celebrate the dory fishermen almost every day - just about every trip was an epic. At the same time we admire their grit, we must admit they decimated the cod fishery.

I have also used dories as tenders, in fact the first boats I built were dories. Many of my friends and neighbors ended up with the identical dory, it was kind of a fad. Hard to beat the economy and seaworthiness.

I must admit I've only read about DeArmond's story. That is one expensive little book!

During the 1980's in the little mill town of Shelton WA, there were two men building a dory in the traditional manner. They intended to row from Shelton to Alaska and write a book. Excerpts from their build were published in the local paper. I lived there at the time and was fascinated by the story and wanted to try the same voyage myself. I don't know what happened to them or their book (would love to know). But to this day, that dream informs many of my trips on the Salish Sea and I am still trying to make it to Alaska, though in small increments. (age is catching up with me, I am loathe to admit).

Michael said...

Hey DoryMan

thanks for sharing that little bit of history. for clarification, that picture at the top is the boat I took to Alaska, the same one Omen later journeyed to the hot springs with his wife, the same one he played in as a child....

The same Higgins and Gifford boat in American Small Sailing Craft that was the typical schooner fishing dory boat.

BTW, it was draggers and careless managementthat ruined the cod stocks, not the hand liners.

Here's wishing everyone Feliz Ano Nuevo and may many new dories find their way into the water.


Michael said...

sorry to double-post, but I forgot to include this link from Bill's Log:

another great small boat voyage in a dory.

doryman said...

Thanks, Michael
Please keep us posted on your projects.

Michael said...

Wowsers... trolling the webzone paid off with this illustration of Willem Barentz's DORIES..... at least in construction: flat bottom, lapstrake, looking much like St. Pierres with big buttock lines....

They certainly have a family resemblence to some colonial flats boats.


doryman said...

I've spent a few days reading about the Dutch explorations of the sixteenth century - fascinating!
Greed and profit will motivate people to do extraordinary things.
Of course today, the fabled NW Passage around the top of the globe is no longer a fantasy.

Michael - have you found any more information about the construction of the Dutch ship's tenders?

Michael said...

"have you found any more information about the construction of the Dutch ship's tenders?"

No. I wonder how generic they might have been? You know, hanseatic league and other movements might have homogenized boats the way the hudson's bay co. affected and perfected freight canoe designs.

when the repro of Colombus' ship Nina was in Seattle I spent a good bit of time sitting on her deck inspecting her ship's boat. It bears distinct resemblence to the ship's boat for the repro of Cabrillo's San Salvador now building in San Diego in Spanish Landing Park.

I am suggesting perhaps a common parentage of vessels built with sawn lumber as opposed to the riven lumber the vikings and other northern lapstrakers used....

All speculation on my part of course, although the Spanish and Dutch traded canonballs from time to time... maybe they picked up boats afterwards, eh?



Dave Z said...

To see a dory is to immediately grasp its practicalities, both from the construction standpoint and sea-keeping/load carrying. I can imagine that, from the first model, it went 'viral'.

That's an interesting comment re: milled (or pit sawn) lumber vs riven.

Riven must produce a lot of tapered and/or S-bend planks, and therefore more complex shapes (fat ends butted, narrow ends outboard).

Lumber sawn for general use (parallel sided), when stacked into flared walls... brought to pointy bow and narrow transom is your basic dory. Quick, cheap and a heckuva boat!

Michael said...


That's actually Gardner's observation from the Dory Book, and I should have attributed it.

But riving lumber must be very ancient craft. Can you imagine being the chief riving supervisor in a shipyard a couple of thousand years ago? Boring but critical skill set.