Historic boat finds new berth in Kenai

There’s a new piece of history outside the Kenai Historical Society’s office, in the Old Town section of Kenai. It casts back to a time in the state’s commercial fishing industry before small boats had engines, electronics or hydraulics, when everything was done by hand.

A Bristol Bay double-ender fishing boat is on display at the Kenai Historical Society's office, across the parking lot from the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. (Photo by Jenny Neyman, KBBI - Homer)
A Bristol Bay double-ender fishing boat is on display at the Kenai Historical Society’s office, across the parking lot from the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. (Photo by Jenny Neyman, KBBI – Homer)

For visitors, the 28-foot wooden fishing boat is a rare glimpse at a unique piece of commercial fishing history in Alaska. For Brian Johansen, it’s a visceral tie to his father and the start of his 57-year career on the water.

“In 1956, I was 9 years old when I started fishing on this boat,” Johansen said.

The boat belonged to his dad, Alex “Ike” Johansen. Ike was born in Kenai in 1919 and spent his life as a commercial fisherman, fishing set nets, fish traps and drift boats.

He bought this boat, the Georgia J — named after his wife, Brian’s mother — from the Libby, McNeil, Libby cannery in Kenai in 1956. It’s a Bristol Bay double-ender, so named because of its distinctive design that helped fishermen haul nets by hand.

“See, this is not a square stern. Most boats you see nowadays are square stern. Because pulling by hand, with a double-ender like this, these boats would cut the water better,” Johansen said.

The double-ender, and a batch of others like it, was built in the Seattle area in the winter of 1931 to 1932. They were company boats used by Libby, primarily in Bristol Bay.

“The tender would tow these boats in a long string together out to the fishing grounds. They had no engine, they had a mast for their sail, a wooden tiller, and a long set of oars,” Johansen said.

Libby eventually brought the boats to Cook Inlet and outfitted them with gasoline, Chris Craft engines. Ike Johansen requested to buy the boat he was fishing for Libby, No. 112, in 1955. He renamed it after his wife, removed the sailing equipment and made other modifications over the years.

Brian Johansen fished on the Georgia J with his dad, Alex Johansen, starting when he was 9 years old. The boat is a double-ender, with a stern (seen here) that's point like a bow. (Photo by Jenny Neyman, KBBI - Homer)
Brian Johansen fished on the Georgia J with his dad, Alex Johansen, starting when he was 9 years old. The boat is a double-ender, with a stern (seen here) that’s point like a bow. (Photo by Jenny Neyman, KBBI – Homer)

One of the improvements Brian Johansen best remembers is his dad adding a transmission so the nets could be hauled by hydraulics. The nets in those days were linen, with cedar corks, and heavy.

“In ’57 or ’58. But I know we pulled by hand for a couple years, there. But he put that on so I didn’t have to work so hard,” Johansen said.

It was yellow when Ike bought the boat. He repainted it white with red trim. Or, rather, Brian did.

“I had the honor of painting it every spring. Also, I had to cork the seams of these planks,” Johansen said.

He pantomimed taking long strips of cotton, twisting them and tapping them into the seams between planks on the hull with a corking iron and mallet.

“A seam for every one of these planks, see. And he’d inspect them and make sure the cotton was good, and if not, we’d pull it out and put in new,” Johansen said.

Once recorked, they’d run fresh water into the hull with a hose. The cotton would expand and seal the hull watertight.

It was a seaworthy boat, Brian said, especially with his dad at the helm.

“We had no navigational equipment, no electronics — no such thing back then. All we had was a chart and a compass. That was it. And in the fog, you could have got yourself in trouble, but we never did. My father was a good seaman and he knew his business on the water,” Johansen said.

There was one time, though, that Brian questioned his dad’s judgment.

Fishing periods were 24 hours. One of those open periods almost sunk them, even thought it was flat, calm water.

“A solid wall of fish hit that net. And I had told Dad. I told him, ‘Don’t you think we better start picking this gear?’ He said, ‘Naw, let it soak another 15 minutes.’ And that was a big mistake,” Johansen said.

They were towing three shackles of gear, each net stretching 300 feet.

“The whole net sunk. It was on the bottom of the inlet, and we’re pulling by hand because that transmission broke down,” Johansen said.

They had to pull the 900 feet of heavy net, full of fish, by hand. Over and over again.

“We had over 4,000 fish in a 24-hour period, with this boat. It was tough. We pulled all day and all night,” Johansen said.

Johansen shows the plans for his dad's old boat, built in the winter of 1931-1932 in the Seattle area. (Photo by Jenny Neyman, KBBI - Homer)
Johansen shows the plans for his dad’s old boat, built in the winter of 1931-1932 in the Seattle area. (Photo by Jenny Neyman, KBBI – Homer)

Brian fished with his dad about 10 years, until he left for the Navy when he was 19. His dad sold the Georgia J around then, to some schoolteachers in Kenai. They sold it not long after that, and the family hadn’t seen bow nor stern of the Georgia J for decades.

David Hutchings, of Soldotna, saw the boat on a trailer along the side of the Sterling Highway several years ago and bought it for display in his yard on Sport Lake. He researched the history of the boat and saw that it had been registered to Ike Johansen. Hutchings and Brian Johansen had known each other as kids, so he contacted his old friend last year to tell him he had his dad’s old boat. They started talking to the Kenai Historical Society about displaying the boat in town.

June Harris, historical society president, was eager for the opportunity. Peak Oilfield Services donated a day of labor June 19 to move the boat to its final mooring place. It now sits on the lawn beside the Kenai Historical Society’s office cabin across the parking lot from the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.

“We’re just thrilled to have it. It’s another piece of history,” Harris said.

Johansen and Hutchings will restore the boat over the summer.

“It needs a little work. Some of the planks are sprung out here. I don’t know how bad that will be to get them set back in place. I’m amazed, though, I mean there’s some damage done there, but most of the hull still looks pretty good, pretty solid,” Johansen said.

Johansen’s dad died in 1993. Even though Ike won’t be around in person to oversee the restoration of the Georgia J, Brian plans to do the work to his dad’s exacting standards. He said Ike will still be watching.

“Oh, he’s probably smiling down right now,” Johansen said.

The Kenai Historical Society is planning a dedication ceremony this fall.