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Still chugging along

Erik Christensen sits on the shore of Blakely Harbor, with the Reba H., a 115-year-old gillnetter in the background. - JULIE BUSCH
Erik Christensen sits on the shore of Blakely Harbor, with the Reba H., a 115-year-old gillnetter in the background.
— image credit: JULIE BUSCH

The Reba H. is one of the few surviving vessels from the glory days of gillnetters.

Despite a worn deck and faded sheen, the Reba H. bears her venerable innards with the confidence of a Swiss watch.

Piping twirls and twitters obstinately as she splits the surface of Blakely Harbor, her home for the past half-century.

At an estimated 115 years old, she’s one of the oldest known boats of her kind, floating proof that enduring utility supersedes any aesthetic shortcoming – even slow reflexes.

“She’s runs great and can get into tight places,” said Erik Christensen, who was given the elderly vessel free of charge four months ago. “But she’s like a brick – you’ve got to plan your stops well in advance.”

Christensen, who lives in Suquamish, drives buses for Metro in Seattle and volunteers at Gatewood Elementary School in Seattle, has begun what promises to be a long and expensive overhaul of the historic boat, a 24-feet gillnetter.

He wants to install a computer and global positioning equipment on board so students can follow him online as he retraces the paths of famous Northwest expeditions.

Christensen expects the revamp to cost around $10,000 and is hopeful a technology company will donate some equipment to the cause.

“I think it would be cool way for kids to learn about the history of the region,” he said, adding that he would keep a diary and post pictures from his voyages as students chart his path. “And the boat itself is part of that local history.”

But Christensen knows he has work to do before he can follow any phantom rudders.

The most expensive part, he says, will be restoration of the hull, which will cost around $5,000. He plans to dry-dock the boat this fall so he can begin the overhaul.

Fortunately, the engine, installed in the 1940s, still chugs along gleefully, enabling the Reba H. to reach speeds of up to four and a half knots – “downwind with an incoming tide.”

While speeds like that won’t likely land Christensen a pole position at Seafair, he says it isn’t bad for a boat that was cradling two tons of salmon when the makings of most other boats were little more than saplings.

Gillnetters gained popularity in California during the 1870s when the first west coast salmon cannery was built where the Sacramento River enters San Francisco Bay, creating a fishing frenzy.

“Back then there were boats all over the bay,” said Dick Wagner, founding director of the Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle. “But the double-ended gilnetters became the model that everyone used because they were the most seaworthy.”

The boats, most of which were 24-foot-long sailing vessels made of coveted Port Orford cedar, were manufactured prolifically until the 1920s.

Then, in the 1950s, many of the boats were converted from sailboats and equipped with motors for safer travel.

As a result, few gillnetters, which are already small in number, remain intact.

“It’s hard to get an accurate count of how many are left,” said Wagner. “There’s probably a couple hundred of them still around, but probably very few of them are in original condition.”

Allen Haugen, whose father Alfred bought and restored the boat in the 1940s, said it’s hard to tell exactly how old it is or where it came from.

“The title says she was made in 1891,” Haugen said. “But I don’t know a lot about her history prior to my dad owning it.”

The elder Haugen launched the Reba H. from the country club in 1948 and she’s been moored in Blakely Harbor ever since.

Allen inherited the boat when his father passed away in 1993 and decided to give it up earlier this year.

“I’ve had enough fun with it,” he said. “It’s time for someone else to get some use out of her.”

He offered the boat to a friend who declined, but thought correctly that Christensen might be interested.

Haugen, knowing his father once had a shipwright friend by the name of Eric Christianson, thought the transfer was fitting.

“With a name like that, he deserves a good boat,” Haugen said.

Christensen acknowledged the nautical imagery evoked by his namesake, and said he used to spend months at a time canned up in a submarine during his time in the Navy.

Commanding the Reba H., he said, is much preferable.

So far Christensen has enjoyed cruises around the Bainbridge and Blake islands, but he hopes to one day follow Vancouver’s route, and in doing so, offer local students glimpse of the region’s rich maritime history.

“I love history,” he said, before offering advice one might expect from one refined in the art of exploration:

“You can’t tell where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.”

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