Dave Seaman works on a 67-year-old wood setnet skiff in front of the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center recently. The Homer fisherman is restoring the small craft and the 57-year-old commercial driftnet boat it sets next to.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Like a strong-swimming, sea-bright sockeye salmon changes into a decayed river spawner with an olive-colored head and crimson body, so too do the vessels that fish for these salmon deteriorate with age.
Just as not all salmon make it back to their spawning grounds, not all fishing boats can be saved, but something is being done to arrest the dilapidation of at least two old vessels at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.
“They’re both important pieces to Kenai,” said Mya Renken, executive director of the KVCC.
Renken explained that the boats are important because like all the artifacts at the KVCC they help explain the past, define the present and educate for the future.
Preserving the boats is the first part of this process. Telling the tale of each vessel is the second, according to Natasha Ala, program and exhibit coordinator at the KVCC.
“We have a rich fishing history here in Kenai and we need to do a better job of explaining that and telling that story,” Ala said.
For one of those vessels the 19-foot long, 7-foot wide square-stern wooden dory that story began in 1939-40, according to Ala.
That’s when Fred Earl Seater and two family members built it, Ala said. They selected local spruce trees and cut them well below ground level to the roots to take advantage of the natural curvature of the wood for the dory’s framework ribbing.
For several decades the boat powered by a small outboard motor was used by the Seater family to fish their set gillnet sites off Boulder Point in Nikiski, but after Fred Lee Seater’s death in 1979, the Seater family donated the skiff to the Old Fort Kenay Museum in 1982, according to Ala.
In 1993 the vessel was restored by Tom Tomrdle and Frank “Red” Newton, and was moved to the KVCC soon after.
The second boat, a much larger commercial drift fishing vessel named the K-6, measures 29 feet, 7 inches from bow to stern, and 9 feet, 7 inches wide.
According to Ala, the K-6 is an original wooden-hulled boat built in the 1950s by Grandy Boat Works in Seattle. Shortly thereafter, the vessel was brought to Alaska by Libby, McNeil and Libby Cannery, where it fished in upper Cook Inlet for more than 30 years.
Seaman talks with Perry Eaton as Kim Eaton, Cameron Reitmeier and Ardene Eaton look at the driftnet boat Seaman is restoring. Seaman said many people have stopped to talk about their commercial fishing experiences. "I learn a lot about the people who built them as I restore," he said.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Powered by a single 90 horsepower Chrysler Crown engine, the K-6 packed approximately 1,600 salmon into its hold during the vessel’s heyday, Ala said.
Like the Seater dory, the K-6 has sat outside the KVCC since 1993, untouched until a debate in June 2005 brought the boats back into public focus.
Representatives from Kenai Landing tried to take possession of the K-6, but the Kenai City Council voted to keep the boats where they were, provided the KVCC agreed to restore them.
Renken said it was the right decision. In 2005 she argued the boats would better serve the city’s tourism industry by being cared for where they are, and after the recent restoration work began Renken was made aware that attempts to move one of the vessels could have been disastrous.
“It would likely have broken apart or caved in on itself,” said David Seaman of Homer, the man restoring the two boats.
Seaman has done restoration work on boats for the Pratt Museum in Homer and has built more than 20 boats himself. He’s experienced enough to restore the KVCC vessels, but said he took on the job because he likes the work.
“I like working on old skiffs and old boats. The craftsmen who built them could do all this without thinking about it. It was like ringing a bell for them. So, each one I do, I get to see what they did and how they problem solved. It’s a real learning experience,” he said.
Seaman said he had his work cut out for him, particularly in the case of the dory.
“It was in bad condition. I had to replace all of the ribs,” he said.
Seaman was able to keep most of the long Douglas fir boards used for planking, which is important to the process of restoring the boat. He also uses box nails and other construction materials similar to those used when the boat was built.
As to the K-6, Seaman said once the boat was braced and some frame work complete, the bulk of the remaining work was and still is “a cosmetic facelift” that involves sanding, caulking and painting.
Seaman began the restoration work in July and said he should be finished with both boats by mid-September. But just because he’s done doesn’t mean all the work is finished.
“They’ll still need to be covered or protected from the elements, otherwise I’ll be back here in five years doing it again,” he said.
Renken said the cost for restoring both boats is anticipated to be roughly $12,000 and is being funded by revenue generated from the KVCC’s “Kenai Experience” art show, but this total does not include a structure to cover the boats.
“It’s critical we get something over them,” Renken said, and added that funding for this structure is being sought.
Ala said she also hopes that once funds are acquired and a structure erected, some informal text boards detailing the boats’ histories with historic photos of the boats can also be added to better inform the public about them.
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