Every summer for decades a commune of beach seine salmon fishermen fished out of tents and rough cabins on Packers Spit, a grass covered gravel bar eight miles from the Uganik Cannery, on the west side of Kodiak Island.
Pulling their nets up onto the beach by hand was hard labor, even by the likes of commercial fishing. But they often fished with their wives and children, and found joy in their work, sharing outboards, gear, fuel and food.
In 1976, a man from Great Falls, Mont., Mick McCrea, lived and fished on the spit with his wife Valerie, aged 23, his 20-month-old daughter Heather, his sisters Molly, 18, and Kathy, 19, a deckhand, Dale Venema, and 5-year-old Cy Rogers, whose parents, John Rogers and Virginia Girdler, fished that summer at a setnet site further out the bay.
The Kodiak salmon season closed that year on Aug. 18, and the Uganik Cannery, owned at the time by the New England Fish Co. (NEFCO), shut down its can line. A few days later a burst of late-running pink salmon showed up, however, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game re-opened the west side of Kodiak for five days.
On Aug. 22, Uganik Cannery Superintendent Ivan Fox ordered John Nichols, the skipper of the NEFCO tender Deep Sea, to head to Packers Spit to pick up fish from the beach seiners. Because the Uganik Cannery was no longer canning fish, Fox made arrangements to have the fish processed at the Ocean Beauty plant in Kodiak and told Nichols to deliver them there with the Deep Sea.
The Deep Sea was a 78-foot wooden boat, built in 1945 in Everett, Wash., and had originally worked as a fish trap tender until fish traps were outlawed in 1959. She spent the years after that hauling salmon caught by seine boats, beach seiners, and gillnetters to the Uganik Cannery to be processed.
The vessel had no refrigeration, so Fox told Nichols to return to the Uganik Cannery on the 24th to take on ice to chill the fish they’d bought over the past day or so. After loading the ice and refueling, the boat was to return to Packers Spit for one last pickup from the beach seiners before heading to Kodiak.
The Deep Sea was ordinarily manned by four people, a skipper, mate, engineer and deckhand, but by late August of that year, for reasons which are unclear in the record, only Captain Nichols and an engineer, Bernard Eldridge, remained as crew.
Nichols conferred with Fox about this and they agreed that Earl McKee, a canning machinist at the Uganik Cannery with no marine experience, would serve as deckhand and cook and the boat would sail to Kodiak without a mate.
At some point Captain Nichols also made arrangements with Mick McCrea to take his family and the Rogers’ boy to Kodiak on the Deep Sea so they could catch a flight back to Montana. McCrea planned to stay behind with his deckhand to close up camp.
The boat arrived at the cannery from its first trip to Packers Spit late on the evening of the 24th, loaded fuel, ice, and the new deckhand, and left the dock around 1 p.m. the next day. She arrived at Packers Spit an hour later and from 5 to 9 p.m. Nichols and his two crewmembers loaded fish from the beach seiners. McCrea’s family and the toddler Cy Rogers also boarded the vessel that evening.
The Deep Sea left Packers Spit around 9 p.m. with eight souls on board: Skipper John W. Nichols, Engineer Bernard Eldridge, cook/deckhand Earl McKee, and Mick McCrea’s wife, daughter, two sisters, and the 5-year-old Rogers’ boy.
The 90-mile trip to Kodiak was expected to take seven and half hours, putting them into town around 5 a.m. the next day, with an 8 a.m. appointment to unload at the Ocean Beauty dock.
The forecast called for a northeast gale, but the boat had weathered many storms in its career and there was apparently no apprehension about the weather among the crew, the passengers, or Superintendent Fox.
At their regular 10 p.m. radio schedule Fox and Nichols spoke briefly, but Nichols was busy and said he would call Fox again at 11 p.m. He never made that call.
At 4:15 a.m. the next day, Aug. 26, the Coast Guard heard a single radio call, “mayday, mayday, Deep Sea, vicinity Whale Pass,” but the caller did not respond to the Coast Guard’s queries for more information. A search began at first light and rescue aircraft found a southeast wind of 30 knots, with a low ceiling and fog. An unopened life raft canister was spotted from the air and a small piece of the boat’s wheelhouse was later recovered, but the people on the Deep Sea were never seen again.
Superintendent Fox flew to Packers Spit in a chartered plane and years later would tell oral historians, “I’ll never forget the state of shock on Mick McCrea’s face when I told him the Deep Sea had disappeared with his wife, his daughter and his two sisters on that terrible night.”
The families of the people lost on the Deep Sea filed lawsuits against the vessel’s owner, the New England Fish Company. NEFCO responded with a petition “for exoneration from or limitation of liability,” which was denied, appealed, and denied finally in February 1979 by U.S District Court Judge William Beeks.
Investigators later determined that at the time of the mayday, a 50 knot wind was blowing from the northeast against the eastern end of Whale Pass, head on into a 6 knot ebb tide current pouring east out of the pass.
Ivan Fox would later say he believed the current was running 9 knots and the wind was blowing 80 knots when the Deep Sea went through Whale Pass. He believed a wave had ripped the wheelhouse — and the people in it — clean off the boat.
Judge Beeks himself observed, “With a strong ebb tide meeting gale force winds in an area subject to violent whirlpools and severe rips, confused seas of at least 15 to 20 feet from the eastern entrance of the passage to one quarter mile east of Ilkognak Rock could be expected.”
Beeks found that the claimants failed to prove their contention — that the vessel was unseaworthy due to inadequate bin boards in the fish hold — which could have allowed the cargo of pink salmon to shift, making the vessel unstable and possibly rolling her over.
The judge allowed, however, that because the Deep Sea ordinarily had four crew on board but only three on its final voyage, and that one of them, Earl McKee, the cannery machinist serving as deckhand, was totally inexperienced, “the vessel was undermanned and was, thus, unseaworthy.”
The judge also found the vessel unseaworthy because she was incompetently crewed, writing that “the loss of the vessel was most immediately due to the master’s negligence in deciding to use Whale Passage under conditions existing at the time of transit.”
Nichols was the only experienced navigator on board and “his physical and mental endurance must have been overtaxed by working long hours in such severe conditions with an undermanned and incompetent crew,” and that this “contributed to his fatal mistake in judgment.”
The court noted that Nichols was on duty for at least 15 hours, from before the Deep Sea left the Uganik Cannery at 1 p.m. on Aug. 25th, through the loading of fish at Packers Spit that evening, until the vessel was lost around 4:15 a.m. the following morning. The court believed that Nichols could have anchored the boat to the west of the eastern entrance to Whale Pass to wait out the ebb tide current and perhaps the wind as well. The court cited another vessel which did exactly that and rode comfortably at anchor while the Deep Sea went past in the dark, bound for its appointment with the maelstrom at the east end of the pass.
NEFCO maintained that the weather was the sole cause of the sinking, therefore absolving the company from liability. The judge rejected this argument, citing the fact that severe weather is common on Kodiak Island and that the Deep Sea was judged able by Captain Nichols and Superintendent Fox to operate safely in winds of 40 to 50 miles an hour and seas of 14 feet, conditions which were forecast and foreseeable on the night of the shipwreck.
The judge therefore found the claimants entitled to recover damages from NEFCO. He reduced damages for Captain Nichols’ survivors by half however, due to Nichols’ own negligence in deciding to sail into “a well-known and treacherous hazard with an inadequate and incompetent crew.” He cited Superintendent Fox’s “acquiescence and consent” to this decision as a derogation of his duty.
Mick McCrea continued to fish on Packers Spit for some years afterward and died of cancer in the mid-2000s. Ivan Fox died in 2013, at the age of 94. The Uganik Cannery shut down in 2006 and, without an active beach gang to maintain it, has fallen into disrepair. The beach seine community on Packers Spit survived well into the early 2000s, until the changing economics of salmon fishing made it hard to justify the labor of pulling beach seines by hand. Nothing remains on the spit now but a few weathered house posts and 2x4s grown over with beach grass.