ILWACO - If you are caught up in the "Deadliest Catch" TV show - and who isn't - then David Lethin's dream of refurbishing the Aleutian Ballad could get you that much closer to experiencing the drama and action of being a commercial king crabber and fisherman.
"About 10 years ago I was in Ketchikan off-loading my catch when a big cruise ship pulled into port. Suddenly there were hundreds of people oohing and aahing at what they were seeing. And all I was doing was unloading fish. I got the idea that people would really love to see commercial fishermen and crabbers at work. This was long before the TV show," Lethin says.
Lethin spent 10 seasons commercially fishing for king crab in a fleet that included the now famous boats Cornelia Marie, Time Bandit and The Maverick (which markets baseball caps and other products at the Astoria Sunday Market).
"A rogue wave turned over the Aleutian Ballad in the Bering Sea," Lethin explains. "After that happened, I decided to fix her up to be a tour boat. I had the wheelhouse removed and scrapped and put in the new pilot house with a modern galley, dining area and sick bay below. I designed the configuration so that passengers could watch the fishing operations in comfort and safety. I put bathroom facilities up front for convenience."
He installed about 40 seats on an observation deck above and another 110 seats on the main deck similar to stadium seating at a ball park. "Feel how warm this is," he states as he sits in one of the comfortable chairs. "It gets cold in Alaska, so I put in a heating system." Heat radiates from overhead lamps and there are also glass areas where passengers below can see what the fishermen are doing on the top deck.
"You'd be surprised, but what you see above deck amounted to only about 25 percent of the cost. We had to redo all the wiring, the compartments were rusting so we had to replace them, we redid the plumbing, the foam, and everything that was wood," Lethin explains. "The total cost is about $2.5 million. It took us about eight months and we did most of it right here in the home port of Ilwaco."
The Aleutian Ballad will not be going to the treacherous Bering Sea or be moored at remote Dutch Harbor. Rather it will dock at Ketchikan's Berth 3 and will run about four miles to Annette Island, which is nestled in a sheltered bay northeast of the Queen Charlotte Islands. The Aleutian Ballad will fish in the surrounding waters reserved by the Metlaketla Indians, a Canadian tribe that also has ties to the U.S.
"It is extremely fortunate that the Metlaketlas allow us to fish there because we wouldn't be able to provide the variety of commercial fishing experiences anywhere else due to the various closed seasons," Lethin explains. The 700-pound king crab pots will likely be the stars of the show, but once they are pulled, re-baited, and dumped a buffet of fishing experiences will take place.
Smaller pots for Dungeness, Turner and box crab, octopus, wolf eels and prawns will also be retrieved. Long line gear will be baited for several species of salmon and other lines will be set for halibut, sablefish, red rock fish, perch, and rock cod.
"A 1,000-pound shark may get hauled in, you never know in fishing," Lethin says. "We can pull up to within 30 feet of the Indians when they are purse seining or gillnetting salmon, too. The people not only will see what is going on, but they can feel the excitement and be close enough to smell the catch."
There is the distinct possibility of seeing several species of whales, sea otters, eagles, porpoises and a bevy of seabirds. Some of the catch will be brought aboard and placed in the live-well tanks within a few feet of the passengers. "I can't wait to put our first octopus in the live well. You know they will crawl right out and we'll let them get close to the passengers and tell them 'Sorry, we're busy' when the people ask for help," Lethin says mischievously.
"Of course safety is of primary importance," he adds in a much more serious tone. "We pay a lot for insurance and on each trip we give a safety talk, get the folks familiar with the configuration of the vessel, and then the crew tells something about themselves. Every one of our crew has some ties to the commercial fishing industry. I will run the boat; we have three very experienced fishermen, and six super support crew."
One of the fishermen will be Jerry "Corky" Tulley from Westport. He was the skipper at the time the Aleutian Ballad rolled and his bio can be found on the Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" Web site. Alan "Kiwi" Brann has made the trek from Australia to be the deck boss, making sure all is ship shape.
Lethin caught his first salmon when he was five years old out of Nestucca, Ore. "I've been fishing for 35 years, ever since I was a deckhand on a salmon charter when I was 12," he relates. "This tour boat idea is a dream of mine. It is one of those things that if I hadn't turned the Aleutian Ballad into a tour boat I just couldn't have been at peace. I think I'll be more excited seeing that first load of passengers' smiles than I was the first time I went to the Bering Sea to king crab."
The tours will begin July 25 if all goes well on the trip north from Ilwaco to Ketchikan. Trips can be booked through Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, or Celebrity cruise lines or by calling 642-4935. The tours last about four hours and there will be two a day. In the future the season will begin about May 10 and end in September. The cost is around $200 per person and includes snacks and seafood hors devours.
More information can also be obtained at www.56degreesnorth.com.
If you are familiar with the "Deadliest Catch" show and commercial fishing, then you will understand that the Aleutian Ballad stayed in port Friday and did not leave until Saturday, July 7-that's 7/7/07. "I'm hoping that will be a lucky day, you never want to leave on a Friday" Lethin says. "If this boat could talk, I'm sure it would say it is happy not having to go back to banging around on the Bering Sea."
He then checks a carpet layer's work, tests the galley coffee machine, and coils a crab line, making sure everything on his 107-foot dream boat is just right.