Master diver, famed octopus hunter and longtime liveaboard, Jack “Stormy” Welfare passed away from natural causes aboard his sailboat on Eagle Harbor on July 30.
Welfare was a fifth-generation Bainbridge Islander and renowned for his gifts of storytelling, his athleticism, his close relationship to the sea and was famed for his skills as an octopus hunter.
If you ask anyone who knew Jack Welfare, they’ll tell you he lived life in his own unique style, something some call primitive and others say was a throwback from a different time. What is certain, though, is that Welfare spent his days defying convention, instead choosing to live as an example of what it means to be truly free.
Ron Laes grew up on Bainbridge and he said that it wasn’t long after moving to the island in 1961 that he and Welfare became fast friends. He first met Welfare while he was playing Army in the woods.
“We discovered each other in the woods and from then on we had many adventures. Everything we did was like a mission,” he said.
“Jack and I did stuff that most guys wouldn’t do,” Laes said recalling the time he and Welfare jumped off the Agate Pass Bridge.
“We started by hooking a rope up to it and swinging off one of the pillars, and then we finally just jumped,” Laes said. “It was no problem for 16-year-old guys.”
When asked what possessed them to jump off the bridge, Laes paused for a moment. “It was there.”
Doing stuff that most people wouldn’t even think of doing became a common theme in Welfare’s early life, like the time that he and Laes stowed away aboard a Seattle-bound ferry.
“One night we got our wetsuits on and went underneath the old Bainbridge ferry dock and swam out to the pilings,” Laes recalled. “We got onto the outer edge of the car deck and stayed hidden until the boat left.”
“When we reached Seattle, we got back on the rail on the outside, got to Bainbridge and jumped right back in the water,” Laes said.
“That’s the kind of stuff we did.”
The Life Aquatic
As a master diver, a big part of Welfare’s life was spent underwater. An avid spearfisherman, many of Welfare’s meals came right from the waters surrounding Bainbridge. Lingcod, cabezon, urchins, rockfish and the occasional octopus were all speared or pried from the rocks by Welfare himself, and he was well-known for his smoked octopus legs, which he called “squaw candy.”
Laes was a frequent companion on Welfare’s free-diving hunts and recalled how the two would catch octopi. Laes said the pair would swim close to the rocky areas near Fort Ward and keep an eye out for the telltale suction cups sticking out from the rocks.
“Once we found the suction cups, we would shove sand in there and the other guy would be swimming around and making sure there wasn’t an exit for the octopus,” Laes said.
“The secret about catching an octopus is you got to be able to count to eight,” he explained. “If they get seven legs out and one is still in the hole and you go to grab him and they happen to grab you, you won’t be getting that one out of the hole.”
After they had gathered a respectable number, Laes said, the pair would head out to sell what they had caught.
“We’d take the octopus and the sea urchins and go up to the cockfights on Koura Road,” Laes recalled. “The winners would be more than glad to take our bounty off our hands.”
Storyteller at heart
John Steiner was another close friend of Welfare’s, and he fondly recalled the way Welfare was always telling stories that could captivate, intrigue and delight his audience.
“Pretty much everything that came out of his mouth was a story,” Steiner remembered with a laugh. “The thing that’s remarkable was that half of it was true, because I saw it.”
An accomplished diver, Steiner had accompanied Welfare on countless dives and witnessed the events of many of Welfare’s tales firsthand.
“He’d talk about going down and wrestling a 100-pound octopus to the surface — and this was just breath-hold diving — and on the way up the octopus would strip off his mask, snorkel and weight belt,” Steiner said. “He’d tell people about how this octopus almost did him in and took everything off him. It’s like, ‘Yeah, well I saw it happen.’”
Steiner said he and Welfare made it a Sunday tradition to slip into the frigid waters in search of a meal.
“We’d get fish and crab and scallops and stuff and come home and cook it up for lunch,” he said.
Welfare’s diving prowess and athleticism would later become the subject of Steiner’s own stories, as well.
“I’ve told a lot of people stories about Jack over the years and I’d always start out by telling them how great of an athlete he was, because he could walk up stairs on his hands,” Steiner said.
“Then the next thing is him diving over 70 feet on a breath-hold dive, and staying down so long I’d worry sometimes when he was coming up.”
Welfare had a unique ability to find comfort and call places home where others couldn’t.
“I had a lot of respect for the way he lived. He was almost a primitive type of person, but he was also a philosopher and an artist,” he added. “He was very unique that way.”
“We had a lot of respect for each other,” Steiner said.
Passing on lessons
When he wasn’t in the water, Welfare was always close to it; he lived on his sailboat “Big Foot” in Eagle Harbor as one of the last few remaining liveaboards on the Island. Welfare also worked alongside fellow liveaboard Dave Ullin to help teach a marine science camp, organized by Andy and Charlotte Rovelstad.
Welfare would supply the class with fresh marine specimens, diving down and returning with critters from the seafloor.
“He was kind and warm and soft-spoken, and his enthusiasm was incredible,” said Charlotte Rovelstad.
“We have lost somebody who appreciated the environment, who was intimately familiar through his self-exploration and self-learning.
“He was an incredibly intelligent person who knew everything about the Sound. He studied all the time, and had a profound understanding of the interconnectedness of things.”
In addition to losing Welfare’s wealth of knowledge, Rovelstad said the community has also lost a tie to Bainbridge’s rich history.
“He was part of the fabric of the island that so many people appreciated and value as part of our cultural heritage here,” she said.
For Christy (Welfare) Fowler, her brother Jack was always larger than life.
“He was always quite a character,” she said. “He could tell a story with all of his personality and all his mannerisms, all the kids and everybody loved him.”
Fowler recalled her brother’s rise to fame as an octopus hunter.
“He caught an 80-pound octopus when he was like 16,” she said.
In the fabled manner of the fisherman’s tale, other accounts of Welfare’s giant octopus see the creature weighing in at well over 100 pounds, and find him wrestling with the behemoth around the age of 8.
Fowler said that while her brother Jack was known for spinning his memorable tales, she would also remember him for another reason.
“He was my big brother and I was proud of him. He was a good guy, I just wish I could have spent more time with him,” she said.
Jack “Stormy” Welfare was 66 years old at the time of his passing. He is survived by his three sisters, Patricia (Welfare) Armstrong, Randee Welfare and Christy (Welfare) Fowler, as well as many nieces and nephews.
A GoFundMe page has been set up to help pay for Welfare’s funeral costs and friends can donate at www.gofundme.com/stormys-funds.