The Pacific Northwest lost a piece of its irreplaceable history last week, and I lost a friend. Dave Wright, the last surviving fisherman who sailed on the schooner Wawona, died on February 11 in Anacortes at the age of 94. Dave was the single most important source for my book, Shipbuilders, Sea Captains and Fishermen: The Story of the Schooner Wawona. The book told the story of the 1897 lumber and fishing schooner Wawona, which was preserved at South Lake Union in Seattle until 2009, when it was broken up. I dedicated my book to Dave, who sailed on Wawona three times.
While I was researching the book, I visited him exactly 10 years ago at his home in Anacortes. He was cheerful and energetic, even though he had just lost his wife, Dolly “Ruth” Wright. He visited with me for nearly two hours, regaling me with stories of his time on Wawona. Born in 1919, he wanted to live a life at sea, and his first trip as a young man was on Wawona in 1940. He sailed on her twice more, in 1941, just before the outbreak of World War II, and in 1947, the last time Wawona sailed.
I dug into my old Wawona notes and found an anecdote. Although the year of the incident is unclear, Dave remembered Capt. Thorsten “Tom” Haugen, a Norwegian immigrant whom Dave described as a “a very kind gentleman.” Dave and the other fishermen caught fish from a power dory, a modified Gloucester dory with an outboard engine.
One time, it was so foggy, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. All I had was a compass and a watch. I couldn’t hear anything. I’d go a little ways and time it against the tide and stop the motor and listen. I heard a loud boom that bounced off the dory. I didn’t know what it was. Well, in the early morning, the fog would lift a bit off the water. I looked around and saw the ship 50 or 60 feet behind me. Someone was firing a gun, and the noise I heard was the sound bouncing off my dory. And Capt. Haugen says to me, “Vat’s da madder? Wouldn’t you rather sleep in your dory all night long?”
When Dave died last week, a chapter in Northwest history closed forever. He was likely the last surviving fisherman who sailed with the last working fleet of sailing vessels flying the U.S. flag. The final trip by one of these vessels took place in 1950, and that boat, C.A. Thayer, is now preserved in San Francisco. I wrote my Wawona book in part to preserve her stories, because I knew the ship itself was in grave danger. My fears were borne out, and I owe Dave a debt of gratitude for sharing his story.