Sam Devlin, a Northwest designer and boatbuilder covered frequently in these pages over the decades, knew I wanted to get closer to Josephine, his 84-year-old salmon troller, which he acquired in 1999. He called me to see if I could help him move her—and a Surf Runner 25, one of his original designs—back to their home port of Olympia, Washington. Both boats had been on display at the Center for Wooden Boats in downtown Seattle for the 43rd Annual Lake Union Wooden Boat Festival. Josephine, Sam’s personal cruising boat, is a mainstay at such festivals, where Sam sits on deck and weaves yarns of all kinds. Sam is the nearest thing I know to a boat philosopher, and he makes time for everyone who lends him an ear.
I enlist my dad to help run the 25 with me so I can photograph Josephine on the water as we head the 60 or so nautical miles down to the southern end of Puget Sound. Light wind and a cool drizzle are in the mix for the day’s weather as we greet Sam on the docks. The engines on both boats are already warmed up and, after a quick lesson on the particulars of our picnic-style boat, we’re ready to push off.
Like many, I’m drawn to salty workboat good looks, from sweeping sheer and low freeboard to a proud bow, stout pilothouse and burly deck hardware. There’s nothing quite like bollards and lines neatly coiled on belaying pins. I also find it impossible not to admire a boat’s intangibles: her authenticity of purpose, her ability to perform jobs in all weather and to return her operator safely, often to a family that relies upon the income. All that said, Josephine is special—with a beautiful canoe stern, purpleheart anchor bill boards, artful rub rails and a stunning white-on-forest-green paint scheme. Sam’s dutiful reverence has kept her in top shape, though in his usual self-deprecating manner, he downplays his success.
While we can’t see the amount of work or time that Sam dedicates to keeping Josephine shipshape, I imagine that if Einar Williams, her original owner, could see her now, he would be proud. The boat was originally commissioned by Williams at the Tacoma Boat Company, which specialized in workboat construction south of Seattle. Led by the yard’s Norwegian founder, Arne Strom, and his brother-in-law Harold Dahl, the Tacoma Boat Company focused on building purse seiners and salmon trollers for Pacific Northwest waters. After Josephine (originally named Eleanor) was commissioned in Alaska, Williams put her into service until a freak accident forced him to sell in 1964.
Of the accident, Sam explains, “Williams suffered a compound fracture of his leg when a halibut whacked him as he walked forward from the trolling cockpit aft up and over the deck checkers—a series of boards arranged on the decks to hold the fish until they were put into the iced fishhold. As the story goes, he put on a tourniquet and posted himself in the wheelhouse, running [the boat] as fast as she could [go] back to town for help. When he arrived in Ketchikan, he was so out of it that he just aimed for the dock and never took the boat out of gear.”
Williams was rescued by fishermen working the docks, but after the injury he was no longer able to work. His family needed the income so Williams’ eldest son assumed the fishing duties aboard Eleanor.
Unfortunately for the boat, the son had little interest in actual fishing. Instead he got a job hauling fish from the local fish traps (large wheels of nets that dipped spawning salmon out of the water) to the nearby cannery. Fishing was good in those days, and paid by the pound, so the son loaded Eleanor to the top of the gunwales with fish.
Sam explains what happened next to the grossly overladen boat: While crossing Clarence Strait—a notorious bit of water just north of Ketchikan—a blow came through and Eleanor foundered and sank with the kid aboard. A nearby cannery tender saw the little boat go under and came immediately to the rescue, fishing the panicked captain out of the water. They also stood by as debris came floating up from the sunken hull and spent some minutes fishing the flotsam out of the water.
About a half hour later, while still picking up floating debris, one of the deckhands called out that Eleanor was floating up from the bottom, having tossed off her deckload of fish and gained enough buoyancy to come back up to the surface. The crew of the tender then attached tow lines to the submerged but slightly floating hull and towed it into Meyers Chuck, the nearest safe harbor. Beaching her on a high tide, the kid then spent about three days trying to dry her out and finally got the engine running. Limping back into port, the boy had to report to his dad that he sank the boat but had rescued her almost at the same time. Einar, being a very superstitious Norwegian, would have nothing to do with the boat after that, and never again set foot on her.
Again Sam is downplaying Josephine’s charms.
On the water, the visibility is poor. We are intermittently pelted by rain showers, with 10 knots on the nose, and we get only passing glances of clearing skies as we head for Olympia. Yet with Josephine running alongside, we are afforded far more than just a few “fleeting and momentary glimpses of redeeming qualities.” Rather my view is one of near-continuous perfection. From every angle, Josephine is flawless, the type of hull design that simply slides through the water rather than fighting it. At one point, Sam phones and asks if we want to shoot any photos of her going “a little faster.” Sure, we say, so he pushes her throttle up to her maximum hull speed of 9 knots. But it won’t matter in the photos: No matter what speed she is running, Josephine never looks any different. She always looks perfect.