Just after moving to Ocean Park, I became a habitue of its fine library. In my search for local information the staff directed me to regional files where I read everything, including newspapers’ throwaway advertising specials. It was in one of those long-gone circulars that I read about the sinking of the Jennie F. Decker. She was, the articles said, a classic fishing boat cut in half by an outbound freighter off the Columbia River in 1981; the freighter didn’t stop.
The article quoted long-time fishermen who had loved that elegant old halibut schooner all their lives. One of those men mused about how, way back when he was a kid, he had wanted to grow up to own the Jennie Decker.
That’s how I came to understand that fishing boats are individual personalities, and the men and women who work them come to know their strengths and quirks, loving them like the cowboy loves his favorite horse or the farmer his dusty pickup.
I also saw that when a well-known fishing boat comes to the end of its days, part of the community grieves.
A long-lived boat
The Jennie F. Decker spent a long life in the fishing business, and occasionally came to the notice of the newspapers. Built in 1901 as a two-masted sailing halibut schooner, she was converted to power in 1907, and in the 1920s and ‘30s continued long-lining for halibut off the Oregon and Washington coast.
(The nature of halibut fishing is suggested by an Oregonian article in 1939 wherein Capt. Harry Samuelson told of hooking a 180-pound halibut, fighting it on the line for half an hour, and having to shoot it twice with a pistol before the fish gave up and died. Tough fish.)
In 1939, the Decker was converted to trawl (dragging a large net) for bottom fish. In 1973 she almost sank in 14-foot seas off Winchester Bay when her engine died and she began taking on water. The Coast Guard got there in time and towed her into Coos Bay. In 1976 and ’77 the owners renovated the boat.
By 1981 the Jennie F. Decker was one of the oldest Pacific Northwest fishing vessels still at work.
“Historic boat collides with ship, sinks. A historic Astoria fishing vessel sank early this morning after a collision with a foreign-registered freighter off the Columbia River. No one was hurt when the Jennie F. Decker, owned by Phil Shoop of Warrenton, rolled over and sank in 40 feet of water about 1:24 a.m. The accident ended the vessel’s checkered career, which spanned almost a century. …
“The Cape Disappointment boats arrived at the Jennie Decker’s position about 1-1/2 miles northwest of Columbia River Buoy 1, about 1 a.m. Both boats transferred pumps and crewmen to the fishing boat to aid in controlling the flooding. Seas were calm. The effort was in vain and the Coast Guard boats at 1:17 took off all three of the Jennie Decker’s crew as well as the three Coast Guardsmen who had been transferred aboard. The old dragger capsized just five minutes after the evacuation was complete.
“U.S. Coast Guard spokesmen … wouldn’t identify the freighter, pending completion of a Coast Guard investigation. But one Coast Guard spokesman indicated the service wants to determine why the ship failed to stop or render assistance. …”
There had been a Liberian freighter in the vicinity when the accident occurred. The M/V Spray Stan agreed to be inspected when it arrived at its next stop, in British Columbia. In January 1983, the resulting report stated:
“On 29 June 1981, at a few minutes after midnight, the Liberian bulk carrier Spray Stan contacted the 80-year-old U.S. Fishing Boat Jennie F. Decker in international waters outside Portland, Oregon, USA. …
“… Second Mate An Byeag Seog was the Deck Watch Officer [at that time]. He acknowledged that he visually observed the Fishing Boat Jennie F. Decker first when she was about two miles off his starboard bow. Five minutes later she was in the same relative position at a distance of a mile. He properly concluded that a collision was inevitable, and sounded a series of short blasts on the ship’s whistle. Only then did he put the helm on hand steering, and executed hard left rudder. At no time did he reduce speed, or order the engine room to standby. …
“Captain of Jennie F. Decker Mr. Jerald D. (George) Kiepke … claim[ed] he was … struck on the port bow only two or three seconds after hearing the whistle of Spray Stan.
“It is entirely possible that Second Mate An did not feel the impact as Spray Stan struck Jennie F. Decker. However, he violated one of the most humane traditions of the sea by failing to standby to render assistance. In this case the Second Mate was obliged to determine the condition of Jennie F. Decker. He made no attempt to contact the fishing boat, and callously continued on course.”
The Master of the freighter was censured for failing to take command of his vessel when he heard the whistle and/or felt the hard left rudder movement. The Second Mate was deprived of his license for a year and a half, a severe penalty.
The fishing community lost one of its own.
The Daily Astorian said of the old vessel, “The boat, during an active fishing career which exceeds any one person’s memory, retained the traces of her sailing background — she had a high bow, spritless in her final days, and the deep keel characteristic of sailing vessels.” She was a classic, and beautiful.