The Tordenskjold's New Life

Note: This article was originally published in the February issue of Pacific Fishing.

Who can resist rubbernecking while driving over the Ballard Bridge in Seattle? There is much to admire, moored there at Fishermen’s Terminal. But soon, a familiar sight will be missing. The Tordenskjold, one of the noble halibut schooners who made her berth at the dock for decades, has found a new home with the nonprofit Northwest Seaport Maritime Heritage Center.

This 75’ halibut schooner is such an icon that she barely needs an introduction. She was built in 1911 in Ballard by John Strand, a Norwegian immigrant, with fir planks and old-growth timber. This same shipwright built the Polaris and Vansee. The schooner was named for a Norwegian naval hero, Peter Tordenskiold, which seems appropriate, since after fishing for a jaw-dropping 100 years, the Tordenskjold has become something of a naval hero herself.

 The Tordenskjold at Fishermen's Terminal. Photo by Anjuli Grantham. 

The Tordenskjold at Fishermen's Terminal. Photo by Anjuli Grantham. 

In The Pacific Halibut by F. Heward Bell, a classic treatise on the halibut fishery, the author uses the Tordeskjold as the example of a “typical schooner.”  Halibut schooners were built with an after-deck pilot house and an onboard internal combustion engine. Earlier boats were steam or sail-powered. Northwest Seaport’s Executive Director, Nathaniel Howe, notes that early halibut schooners like this one provided an early market for new diesel technology. The schooners still had two masts, which were used for ancillary wind power and stabilization.

Halibut schooners like the Tordenskjold were purpose-built beginning around 1911. Previously, halibut boats were primarily used for pelagic sealing, with halibut being a secondary occupation. But pelagic sealing came to an end in 1911. Moreover, investors were building cold storages along the Pacific coast and refrigerated rail cars started shipping Pacific halibut to east coast consumers. Thus, the Tordenskjold is one of the early examples of vessels that were constructed just for the halibut fishery, at a specific moment in which the halibut industry came into its own.

The beginning of the Pacific halibut fishery has been traced to September 20, 1888. That’s when the Oscar & Hattie landed halibut in Tacoma which were then shipped eastward on the North Pacific Railroad.

Like the Oscar & Hattie, the Todenskjold’s crew initially fished from dories. Six dories were stacked on deck when the boat was underway, and a crew of 13 or 14 set out from Seattle. Once they reached the fishing grounds, they set an average of five skates per dory. In the 1930s, dories were abandoned and gear was set from the schooners, reducing the number of crew.

The Tordenskjold was built for halibut, but she participated in more fisheries than any of the other schooners. From 1939 to 1979, she operated as a trawler. The boat fished king crab, shrimp, tuna, and even dogfish during World War II. Marvin Gjerde purchased the boat in 1979 and fished it until 2011. Gjerde donated the vessel to Northwest Seaport this winter.

From the days of dory fishing, to dogfish, to crab and more, in a century of fishing, the Tordenskjold never lost a crewmember. As Bell stated, “It was an extremely seaworthy vessel and was able to cope with the worst of the severe weather encountered in North Pacific winters.”

This winter, the Tordenskjold is spending time at the Fishing Vessel Owners Marine Ways at Fishermen’s Terminal, getting a marine survey and a fresh coat of paint, “It’s a floating legend on the ways,” says Howe, “and wonderfully solid.” Sometime in February, the Tordenskjold will be moved from Fishermen’s Terminal to South Lake Union, near the Museum of History and Industry.

Don’t think of this as a retirement, though, since the boat is being converted into an operational museum ship. The Tordenskjold will continue to sail, with museum visitors, school groups, and apprentices on board.  She’ll be the “only fishing vessel around for people to come out, come on board,” says Howe.

Most importantly, the Tordenskjold will be utilized for maritime sector training. Staff and board of Northwest Seaport intend to utilize the boat as a functioning marine classroom, where aspiring mariners will learn boat handling, line handling, marine engine repair, and more.

Howe notes that the average age of those in the maritime sector on Seattle’s waterfront is 58. Northwest Seaport wants to “create an interface with the public to understand [the maritime sector] and for young people to learn about the craft and see it’s not purely historical.” Howe says that the museum recognizes that, “preserving maritime heritage means preserving the current industry,” and critical to that is increasing interest in maritime professions and training for those who want to enter the sector.

Were you one of the hundreds of people who fished on the Tordenskjold, or perhaps you snapped a picture of the boat on the fishing grounds? Northwest Seaport is seeking photographs of the Tordenskjold and is interested in capturing the stories of those who have worked on deck. Moreover, the organization is fundraising to pay for maintenance costs and seeking volunteers. There are many ways to be involved and become a part of the history of this still-living legend. Go to www.nwseaport.org to learn more.