On the 25th of February, 1988, the 40’ fishing vessel Edrie sank in the waters outside of Sitka, Alaska. My father was aboard.
61 years earlier the Edrie’s keel was laid in Wrangell, Alaska. It was 1927, and it was a much different world than today. Joseph Stalin became the leader of the Soviet Communist Party, Calvin Coolidge was the president of the United States. Prohibition went into effect and Henry Ford introduced his Model A. It was only 24 years after the Wright brothers first flew, and Charles Lindbergh completed the first solo trans-Atlantic flight. In a time when telegraphs were the norm, the first trans-Atlantic phone call was made. In Alaska, Benny Benson was designing what would become Alaska’s state flag, while Ketchikan, with a population of over 6,000 residents was Alaska’s largest city.
The Edrie was large for a troller at the time, but she was a very comely boat, if a little broad at the stern. Her lines gave a hint to a seaworthy nature, a trait that would be put to some incredible tests over the next 61 years that she fished Alaska’s Inside Passage. At least twice in her fishing career she was grounded during storms. Howard Ulrich, one of her owners, accidentally grounded her in a storm with 70 mph winds.
Her most famous test came in 1958 in Lituya Bay. Southeast Alaska hosts thousands of coves and bays that can provide shelter from storms, but north of Glacier Bay this dramatically changes, and for a hundred miles of coast it’s the only safe anchorage, called “a dream-like oasis on a brutal coastline” by one fisherman. Safe is a relative word though, as Lituya Bay has its own inherent dangers. Although the bay is 9 miles long and very wide and very deep, its entrance is narrow and shallow. Each tide change funnels millions of gallons of water through the bay entrance. An early encounter with the bay by the Lapérouse expedition in 1768 saw the loss of 21 crewmembers to these tides. Less obvious, but known to the Tlingit who’ve lived on this coast for thousands of years, and to scientists that have studied the bay, there is a long history of tsunamis here.
I can picture Howard Ulrich Sr. and his 9 year old boy Sonny pulling into the bay on a July evening in 1958 and joining the two other fishing boats already there. The Edrie must have left a whisper of a wake as she chugged to the spot Howard chose to anchor. Anyone who’s been on a small boat that’s made a long run knows that special moment, hearing the anchor chain run out, smelling the rich pungent smell of the beach. The engine is killed, and the magical silence that settles into you, displacing the throb and noise of the motor. Now perhaps Howard and his 9 year old Sonny heard a Raven calling to his brothers and sisters in the forest. The bay gently laps at the Edrie as she settles into her anchor.
Sometime that evening, a large earthquake shook the bay, unleashing a monstrously huge landslide at the head of the bay. Fifty millions tons of dirt and rock crashed into the bay. Almost instantly it splashed over 1700 feet up the mountain across from the slide, scouring the forest and soil off, leaving nothing but exposed rock.
The water washed back down and formed a tsunami well over 100’ tall, which raced down the bay, now heading for the three boats anchored there that night. Howard and his 9 year old son saw the wall of water advancing. Howard managed to get his engine started, but couldn’t get his anchor to release from the bottom of the bay. He let out all of his anchor chain, and a steep walled wave, still over 100 feet high, lifted the Edrie, easily snapping the anchor chain. In an act of luck, seamanship, and in a testament to the Edrie’s design and construction, the Edrie was able to power back to the center of the bay amidst a chaos of uprooted trees and wild choppy waves. The two other boats were washed over the sand bar. One boat sank after the husband and wife crew transferred to their skiff. The other boat and crew were lost without a trace. The BBC has done an interesting video on this event.
After the 1958 wave, I lose sight of the Edrie for more almost three decades, but I am able to see through research that Howard Ulrich Sr. ended up working for the US Forest Service for almost 20 years as a skipper for of a Ranger boat, an intersection with my family, as my dad also was a Ranger boat skipper. I also was a classmate of Kurt Ulrich, one of Howard’s sons. 56 years after surviving the Lituya Bay tsunami he passed away at the age of 88. Howard’s life was certainly more than a brush with a monster wave. Respect to this man and what he did with his life.
In 1984, 26 years after the Lituya Bay wave, the Edrie was owned by Thomas C. Will, who had a troubling break with reality. He became paranoid, believing that law enforcement was looking for him, intending to kill him. He slipped away from a small town’s harbor and anchored the Edrie in remote bay. Heavily armed, he swam 75 yards from the Edrie to the boat of a friend, and once aboard, he told his friend that he was a Navy SEAL. To anyone who’s been swimming in Alaska understands the extreme nature of this swim. One icy swim wasn’t enough; he swam to a second boat and woke up another friend (that must have been a rude awakening), only to return to the Edrie in the morning where he pulled the anchor and headed out.
Wearing only boots and cut-offs, Will left the Edrie adrift and took as skiff ashore near the village of Hoonah. This could have been the end of the Edrie, but she was found adrift and was towed to the Hoonah boat harbor. Somehow Will found her and tried to get her engine started, but wasn’t able to get it started. Still aboard, he shot at someone on the dock passing by. Fortunately he missed, but later ended up in a gun fight with the Hoonah police department. Will was shot 5 times in the shootout, only to sue the City of Hoonah, three of their police officers, and an Alaska State Trooper later, winning over $2million in the suit.
This was certainly a bizarre chapter in the history of the Edrie, and it certainly could have led to her demise. Luck smiled on her again, only to turn his back on her four short years later. My dad, Robert Kinville, had been working at the pulp mill in Sitka as a tug boat captain, but due a mill shutdown, wasn’t working. A friend of his had been working as a deckhand on the Edrie, but needed someone to take his place for a rock fish opening, and my dad accepted the job.
The Edrie was geared for longlining. Long rolls of groundlines lay in tubs, with hundreds of circle hooks, attached by gangions (lengths of tough nylon cord), ringing the tubs. Each tub of gear is known as a skate. Anchors for the ends of the skate and buoys to mark the gear’s position crowded the Edrie’s deck as the boat’s owner and skipper, Jim Phillips and my dad left the dock in Sitka headed for Cape Edgecombe. From the fishing grounds, a look west would show nothing but the curve of the horizon, open Pacific Ocean stretching for thousands of miles. It was a bit stormy that day, with winds gusting to 35mph and a swell running.
Once on the fishing grounds, something gave in the stalwart Edrie. Perhaps a plank sprung from a rib? No one will know, but a faulty bilge alarm delayed the initial notice of the dire situation. My dad manned the bilge pump, but due to damage to the pump’s bellows, it only was operating at a fraction of its potential. A mayday was sent, and the nearby Coast Guard Air Station dispatched a helicopter, and a nearby fishing boat responded as a good Samaritan, as the crew aboard the Edrie donned survival suits.
The helicopter lowered a gas operated pump, but Jim and my dad were unable to get it to run. The helicopter lowered a second pump, but before they could try to start it Jim told my dad “It’s too late, we’re going to have to abandon the boat!”, and rolled over the side of the boat. While Jim made his way to the waiting fishing boat my dad tried to abandon the Edrie, only to find that two of the circle hooks from a skate had punctured his survival suit, tying him to the sinking boat.
My dad was able to free himself from one of the hooks, but one hook, caught in then leg of the survival suit was now being pulled taut, and the material of the suit was too tough to rip the hook free. As the stern sank, waves began to roll over his head. In the trough of a wave the deckhand of the other boat called to my dad “Get away from the boat!” My dad called back “I can’t! I need a knife!”
Wave after wave rolled over him as the Edrie sank, only briefly allowing him a life giving breaths, and the intervals were getting smaller the deeper he was pulled. As he was saying what he thought was his final prayer, an act of luck, seamanship and heroism was happening. The skipper of the other boat, tossing about in the large swell, swung his stern over the sunken stern of the Edrie, disregarding all of the lines and debris in the water, and the deckhand reached far over the side of his boat…and placed a knife in my fathers hand. With the slash of a knife, he was finally free of the Edrie and was able to make his way aboard the rescuers boat.
The last sight of the Edrie that my dad saw was a bit of the bow stem, and finally, after 61 years of service, the Edrie slipped below the surface of the ocean.