Steel Team | Part One: Fire and a rented boat can’t stop this crew

Three Sheets Northwest contributor Mark Aberle was invited for a short stint of fishing in Southeast Alaska. As happens, the story would have some interesting challenges that needed to be surmounted before the “Steel Team” could get out on the water. Here’s part one: Two 58-foot purse seiners and a fiberglass tender shared the same city dock […]

Three Sheets Northwest contributor Mark Aberle was invited for a short stint of fishing in Southeast Alaska. As happens, the story would have some interesting challenges that needed to be surmounted before the “Steel Team” could get out on the water. Here’s part one:

Two 58-foot purse seiners and a fiberglass tender shared the same city dock pier in Craig, Alaska on the evening of May 20. The steel hulled Julia Kae had completed her run up from Ballard a few weeks prior. For the 60-year-old captain and owner Steve Demmert it was an annual ritual. This was his second seiner in a fishing career spanning back to the 1980s, earlier than that if you count the deckhand work on his father’s seiner in the 70s. If you’re scoring at home, that’s over 40 years of fishing in Southeast Alaska.

On that May evening, no one was aboard the Julia Kae, the other seiner, the Pacific Lady, or the fiberglass hulled fish packer Seaborne. At some point in the early hours of the 21st, a fire started aboard the Seaborne. The wind was blowing 25 knots and when the flames grew, they were carried across the dock and onto the Julia Kae. By the time someone noticed the blaze, the Seaborne was well on its way towards being fully consumed and fire had spread to Julia Kae’s aluminum pilothouse.

Fire engulfs fishing vessels in Craig, Alaska.

Efforts to extinguish the fire included towing the Julia Kae away from the Seaborne, but the damage was severe. The pilothouse melted and the interior destroyed. The mast, boom, rigging and powerblock had toppled in the fire then were cut way and sank as the still burning boat was towed away from the inferno.

The CO2 suppression system may have slowed the fire in the engine room, but the still floating vessel, to most eyes, seemed a total loss. Gone were the electronics, hydraulics and refrigeration, along with all of Captain Demmert’s personal effects. Including two computers that stored every waypoint and every set he’d made since 1981, plus notes he had made with his father since the mid 1970s. Tragic.

The destruction wasn’t quite total, however. The power skiff was still useable, albeit with a slightly melted and singed beard on the bow. The net stank from the smoke, but with new cork could still be fished. Unfortunately, though, most of the forward part of the boat had been gutted by the fire.

When longtime skiffman Nick Enloe got the text, his heart stopped. He said he’d grown up on that boat. The other crew, Raleigh and Craig, were similarly in disbelief. The Julia Kae, in their words, was perfect. Well set up. Owned by Steve since 2008, the boat had been improved over time to be an effective and efficient fishing machine. The crew trusted and praised boat, and the man who ran it.

With a month before the first opening of the season, Captain Demmert and his crew faced a daunting task: Recovering what they could from the Juila Kae, dealing with insurance issues and their own sense of loss while at the same time salvaging what they could from the season. The Julia Kae wasn’t the only thing made from steel. The team had to be as well if they wanted to get back out doing what they loved — fishing. 

At the same time Steve and the crew were cleaning up what they could of the Julia Kae, he began making inquiries on what vessels were available for lease. Steve has a long history with Southeast Alaska and he knows most of the boats and their captains. Many are family members.

Steve’s grandfather was born in the Tinglet village of Klawock, 50 nautical miles as the eagle flies Northwest of Ketchikan on Prince of Wales Island. George Demmert was a boat builder who constructed trollers and seiners. He had seven children, five of them sons. All five became fishermen. Each had families and many of their sons became fishermen. Steve’s generation also had families, who’s sons – and now daughters – are on their way to becoming seiner captains. At one point in time, the Demmert family name had the most salmon fishing permits of any family in Southeast Alaska.

Before the embers had cooled on the boats, this vast network kicked in. Steve’s cousin Karl was instrumental right after the fire, building a frame around the gaping wound where the pilothouse once stood, protecting the sharp edges of the frame with carpet remnants, then shrink wrapping it.

Simultaneously Steve was securing another seiner to lease. He found one — the Defender — in Ballard. He and his team set to work getting the boat ready for the first opening — now just two weeks away. In early June Steve and crew began outfitting the boat and then on the 19th they made the three day run up to Craig to transfer the salvageable items from the Julia Kae, primarily the power skiff and net, to the new boat. Twenty four hours later they caught the 2:30 a.m. tide to get to the Ketchikan side and begin fishing Sunday, June 25.

Defender and her new crew at work.

By all measures, it was a remarkable turnaround after such a tragedy.

Defender is a fiberglass seiner, larger than Julia Kae, but had been rented out for several seasons. Without an owner on board, repairs and maintenance had been done more for expediency than permanency. And during the first opening, minor issues mounted until the last day.

Usually first openings are slow and this was no different. For the newest crew member, 21 year old Jordan, that first four days was “educational.”  Jordan, a native of Minnesota, had never fished. Raised on a farm, he was used to hard work, milking cows, cultivating corn and bailing hay. But at some point he had dreamed about fishing in Alaska.  

Fishing once again.

So the ad posted by Steve resonated with Jordan. Steve’s ad was the result of his many years working with crew. He could teach someone how to fish. He couldn’t teach someone how to have a work ethic or how to have ambition, or how to avoid life’s many vices.

Jordan replied to the ad, the two talked and he was hired. Jordan was mechanical. Perfect.

Jordan made the run up from Ballard and did his first opening ever, applying his skills whenever possible. On the last day, the power block’s hydraulic pump, high above the deck, failed in a shower of hydraulic fluid.

I boarded the boat six days later in Ketchikan. The hydraulic failure had been fixed, but a new problem had cropped up. In the process of tracking down sounds coming from the propeller shaft, a watertight hatch had been damaged. The hatch sealed the access from the bottom of the fish hold. Without an effective seal, water from the hold would fill the bilges. The boat was un-fishable without the hatch.

The noise was eventually diagnosed as failing bearings on the reduction gear to the propeller shaft. The mechanic said it was only a matter of time and the boat might make the season if it was babied along. “You’ve got your skiff to tow you in, right?” he said in parting.

Adversity, once again, would need to be overcome.

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