Last of the Skansie-Built Gig Harbor Seiners Copyright Peter Marsh
The sinking of the 66’fishing vessel Avalon in the Hood Canal last September was reported by the Coast Guard in a brief news releases that erroneously described it as a “pleasure craft.” It was a typical derelict situation: an optimistic owner who could not afford the necessary overhaul, a suspicious night transit under tow by a 14′ skiff to an undisclosed destination. Around 2am, the four people aboard abandoned the vessel and made it ashore to Pleasant Harbor State Park in the skiff. About 70 gallons of diesel was released, leaving 300-500 gallons of fuel onboard.
Fortunately, the Brinnon Fire Department, Jefferson County Sheriff’s boat, and Pleasant Harbor Marina staff quickly responded and deployed absorbent boom to soak up spilled diesel. A second Coast Guard report at the end of October noted the skill of the salvage divers and deck crew who ensured the wreck was lifted in one piece onto a barge and placed safely on shore in the Port Townsend Boat Haven.
But I suspected there was another, untold story surrounding the FV Avalon, and it only took a minute on the web to find detailed information courtesy of the Gig Harbor Historical Society. The Avalon was indeed a significant part of Washington’s historic fishing culture. It was a wooden purse seiner launched in 1929 at the Skansie yard, run by a well-known Croatian family who played a large part in establishing Gig Harbor as an important fishing center at the south end of Puget Sound. “Skansie Built” boats became well known all along the West Coast and Alaska for their fine craftsmanship and materials. ( http://harborhistorymuseum.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-avalon.html)
Peter Skansie immigrated to the USA from Croatia in 1886. He found free land for homesteading in Gig Harbor, then convinced his brothers Mitchell, Joseph and Andrew to join him. They followed the traditional routine of fishing in the spring and summer and building boats in the winter. They built a stone house in 1908, added the net shed to the property in 1910, and opened the Skansie Shipyard in 1912.
In 2011, the city of Gig Harbor recognized all 17 traditional net sheds on the waterfront as a civic asset, giving the Skanskie net shed protection as a historic building and the center of the park. The Avalon was one of only two boats mentioned in the description of the property, though nearly 100 fish boats were built there. There was a move to start a “Save the Avalon” campaign, but it did not progress, probably because the Coastal Heritage Alliance agreed to base their west coast flagship, the 65′ converted seiner Commencement built at the Skanskie yard in the summer—near where it was built in 1926.
In 1921, the yard found a new market building small car ferries to connect the growing communities on many islands of the south sound with the mainland. In 1927 their advertising described them as “Builders of Purse Seiner, Cannery Tenders, Ferry Boats and Yachts-Cruisers.” The advertisement listed: a steel and concrete dry dock 54-ft x175-ft with a draft clearance of 10-ft., an engine room and blacksmith shop 50-ft x60-ft, modern marine ways with capacities 65-ft and up to 500 tons deadweight, main building shed 60-ft x 175-ft with a clearance above keel blocks of 30-ft, a smaller building shed and joiner shop 32-ft x 165-ft with a fitting out wharf 300-ft in length.
The ad went on to state “We specialize in the building of Commercial and Pleasure Craft of every description. All new construction and overhauling of Ferry Boats for the Washington Navigation Co. occupies a portion of our plant. All work under the direction of experienced superintendent and skilled help.”
In 1928, Andrew Skansie began work on the Avalon, which he intended to fish himself. He installed a 75-hp diesel engine, which was considered powerful for the time. Previously, he had used a boat for a year or two then sold it, but he liked the Avalon so much that he ran it for a decade, then installed a newer engine–the 110 hp four-cylinder Atlas Imperial, an engine so solid many are still running today.
The ferry boats and the Washington Navigation Co. came about when the automobile began to be more common and drivers needed to be transported across Puget Sound to Tacoma. Mitchell Skansie founded the company and in the 1930 operated 7 ferries and 4 routes. When Pierce County could no longer afford to run its own ferry services in the Depression, Mitchell and his company took over all those routes.
Andrew’s son Antone fished the boat for 54 years as crewman and skipper until he retired in 1987. The boat was sold in 1990 and worked out of Bellingham for a few more ears—until time and tide caught up with it. By 2000, after 70 years on the water, this veteran seiner was in desperate need of a complete re-build. A series of hopeful owners attempted and failed to save the boat from becoming a derelict.
After the sinking, the Department of State Lands gave the owner 30 days to present a suitable salvage plan to the Coast Guard. On Oct. 24, the state took possession of the wreck and hired Global Diving and Salvage to remove it. It was raised on Oct. 28 by a floating crane, placed on a deck barge, and taken to Port Townsend Boat Haven where it was still stored in January, but was under threat of demolition in the near future. The cost of the salvage operation was about $70,000, and the DNR may go to court to recover the costs. according to a spokesman.
(Coincidentally, on Sept. 28 Zoran Milanović, prime minister of Croatia, visited Gig Harbor and met many people with Croatian ties and heritage at Skansie Brothers Park.)