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Historic cannery boat returns to Bristol Bay to cast its net one last time

The Libby, McNeil & Libby No. 76, crosses Cook Inlet on July 5, 2022.
Bjørn Olson
The Libby, McNeil & Libby No. 76, crosses Cook Inlet on July 5, 2022.

Dozens of gillnetting boats powered by motors leave Homer Harbor every year to fish for salmon in the waters of Bristol Bay.

This summer, a unique boat joined them: an 80-year-old restored wooden sailboat.

The Libby, McNeil & Libby No. 76, powered mostly by wind and sail, left Homer on July 5 for the 300-mile journey to Naknek. The boat will cast its net in the Bristol Bay waters for the first time in at least 50 years.

“The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is predicting the largest [sockeye salmon] run ever,” said Tim Troll. “So it just seems so appropriate that this boat should go back to Bristol Bay during the biggest fishing season ever and actually drop in the net and participate.”

Troll is part of the support team following the Libby McNeil as it makes its historic journey one last time. He’s also the author of “Sailing for Salmon,” a book about Bristol Bay commercial fishing from 1884 until 1951, when sailboats dominated the fishery.

“That whole fishery, as big as it is, was fished by sailboats, up until 1951,” Troll said. “That date struck me because that's my birthday. That was the year I was born. So, this is not something that happened a long time ago. This is something that's within living memory.”

The Libby McNeil is one of the last remaining sea worthy, double-ended sailboats. It earns its name from its place in the fleet of the Libbyville Cannery, a salmon processing plant that operated just northwest of Naknek until 1959. The Libby McNeil looks kind of like a big kayak with a larger deck and tapered bow and stern.

After leaving Homer earlier this month, the Libby McNeil crossed Cook Inlet to Williamsport, a small seasonal town on the Inlet’s western shore, where the sailboat was transported over land to Pile Bay.

The Williams family operates the portage company that hauled the boat 15 miles over the land between Cook Inlet and Lake Iliamna. Ray Williams’ father, Carl, ran the portage company when it started back in the 1930s.

“Ray kindly gave the same price as his father would have charged for a sailboat going across the portage,” said Troll. “And that was $290. That was the 1938 price.”

Back in the 1930s, thousands of double-ended sailboats like the Libby McNeil gillnetted in the Bay. The two-person crew on each boat worked six days a week, sometimes from late May until September, pulling up their salmon-filled nets by hand. They stored their fish on the boat until they could offload to a “tally scow,” a type of tender that would tally up each boat's catch. Unlike commercial fishermen today who are typically paid per pound, the cannery fishermen were paid per fish.

It was a time when historians say “boats were made of wood, and men were made of steel.” The work was grueling and dangerous. Boats were open and exposed to the typically wet and unpredictable weather of Bristol Bay. With shifting sand bars, shallow waters and high tides, the waters were notoriously treacherous.

“Bristol Bay is, in fact, probably one of the more dangerous fisheries in the world, simply because of our dramatic tides,” said LaRece Egli, director of the Bristol Bay Historical Society Museum in Naknek.

“We have, I think, the third most extreme tides on planet Earth,” said Egli. “So Bristol Bay basically empties like a bathtub during low tides.”

According to Egli, cannery fishermen before World War II were mostly immigrants — primarily Italian, Norwegian and Swedish men who worked at the whim of the canneries. The “independent fisherman” in that time was non-existent. Canneries owned the sailboats, the gear and the unions that represented the fisherman.

“It was very much a ‘company store’ mentality,” Egli said. “You got your food and all of your equipment, all of your supplies from the cannery. Those things were all taken out of your paycheck at the end of the season. But you kind of owed your whole soul to the canary.”

Although outboard motors were invented in the late 1800s, and by the 1920s were standard on most fishing boats, they were prohibited in Bristol Bay waters, Egli said.

Before statehood, Alaska’s fisheries were under the jurisdiction of the federal government. The canneries pressured the feds to prevent motorized boats in the fishery. Motorized boats would allow fishermen to negotiate prices between canneries and would give the fishermen more bargaining power.

“The canneries claimed that it was a conservation measure, when in reality, they did not want to make the financial investment or see the independence of the fishermen to be able to move between canneries for their employment,” said Egli.

Then, in one day, the history of Bristol Bay sailboats changed forever.

“The bloody fifth of July, it's called. 1948,” said Troll, who is currently traveling with the Libby boat.

That morning the sea was relatively calm, but a sudden shift in weather and gusts up to 50 miles per hour caught many in the cannery fleets off-guard. At least six fishermen died that day. Many fishermen cited the lack of motorized boats as a contributing factor in the fatalities. They called for change and formed the Alaska Fisheries Board the next year to pressure the federal government to lift the motorized boat ban.

“And that was the event, probably more than any other single event, that led to the elimination of sailboats, and the introduction of motorized power in Bristol Bay and in 1951,” said Troll.

He said it was fortuitous that his boat, the Libby McNeil, left for its voyage on July 5.

“I always like to close historical loops,”  he added.

On Wednesday, the boat sailed to the villages of Kokhanok, and will continue to the village of Igiugig, before traveling southwest down the Kvichak River to Bristol Bay.

“Hopefully we get into Naknek by the end of the evening on the 20th [of July],” said Troll.

After that the Libby McNeil will be part of Fishtival, beginning on July 21. It's an annual celebration in Naknek that marks the end of the Bristol Bay commercial salmon run.

Originally from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia, Desiree has called Alaska ‘home’ for almost two decades. Her involvement in radio began over 10 years, first as a volunteer DJ at KBBI, later as a host and producer, and now in her current role as a reporter. Her passions include stories relating to agriculture, food systems and rural issues. In her spare time, she can often be found riding her bicycle, creating art from handmade paper, or working in the garden.
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