Sealing Skippers Preparing for 1926
N. DE BERTRAND LUGRIN
CAPTAIN JACOBSON threw himself into his capacious armchair, put his feet on a hassock, removed his glass eye and placing it in his pocket, leaned his head back against the crocheted antimacassar. The fire in the great heater was roaring; a bed of coals gleamed in the wide-open draught.
We sat in the sitting room of the Distributor, now the captain’s houseboat, but which, when Prince Rupert, B.C., was in the building, used to carry supplies up and down the Skeena River.
The captain would not live in a house. Son of a line of Swedish sailing men, and Finland ship-builders from Helsingfors, he has the blood of Vikings in his veins, and possesses the indomitable courage of those hardy Norsemen. He could not sleep in a bed on land.
“Every hair is a rope yarn and his blood is Stockholm tar.” Such a man is Captain Jacobson, known from Cape Flattery to Dutch Harbor and the Behring Sea, for his exploits in the brave old days of pelagic sealing on the Pacific Coast. He is ready if the closed season terminates in IQ2Ó.
He must feel the rock of a boat under him, and hear the wash of the tide. Nearly seventy, he is now, but as young in spirit as a man of fifty. Isn’t he getting ready to go to sea again in 1926, provided the Behring Sea is once more open to the sealers?
“It takes a year and more to fit out,” he says, “and in the spring of ’26 I’ll have my boat in shape.
I’ll get me a crew of Indians from the West Coast of Vancouver Island.
They make better hunters than the white men; less trouble. And I’ll travel with sails only. No auxiliary engines for me. Sails, and plenty of spare canvas, flying stay-sails, balloons and gaff-topsails. Once we’re a couple of hundred miles off land, we can count on a breeze, and with the flying canvas make fine headway.
Given decent weather I used to sail up from the West Coast to the Fairweather grounds in ten days. With a following wind I could beat the United States and the British gunboats, and, by George, sometimes I had to!”
The captain’s eyes twinkled, and he gave his hearty, throaty laugh. Time was when Jacobson was known among sea-faring men all up and down the Pacific Coast, from San Diego to Dutch Harbor, and over across the Pond to the sealing banks of Russia and Japan. He commanded three sealing schooners, and employed scores of hunters. He had the reputation of being the most dauntless and daring of any of those reckless sealing captains, and his luck was the envy of them all. Fortunes he won, and lost, and won again, and when the revenue cutters were making life a misery for the sealers, so that many of them were caught, their schooners confiscated and the officers themselves flung into prison at Sitka, Jacobson still made his way gaily up to the Behring Sea, as daring as any pirate of the days of Captain Kidd, dodged in and out of fiords and coves in a game of hide and seek, and then, almost under the noses of the men-of-war, sailed home with his hold full of pelts.
The Old Seaman
LJ E’S a huge fellow, this Jacobson, a bit stooped now, A1 and a little lame from a fall down the ship’s hold. But his shoulders are broad as a buffalo’s, and his long sinewy arms end in great hands, like a bear’s paws, gnarled and with a fearsome grip.
His jaw is slightly crooked, the result of an accident off Dutch Harbor, many years ago. Some of his pelts were spoiling for lack of salt and he bought two or three hundredweight from another schooner. A storm was up, and as they were making the transfer, the small rowboat manned by the captain was struck by a boom.
“My jaw snapped clean in two,” he explained, “and after I’d got on board, the mate and I bored holes in both the upper and lower jaws with a brace and bit, and mended it with a piece of wire. It lasted till I got home six weeks later. Then I went to the doctor and had it done up properly. I remember when I came into his office he swore, and says, ‘Victor, I don’t know
why you’re not dead from blood-poisoning.’ But it takes a lot to kill me.
“And then, besides, we had bad weather all the way down and I had to stay at the wheel; my mate lost his nerve. Salt water was washing over me most of the time and salt water’s a powerful disinfectant.”
He lost his eye through blood-poisoning. He was struck with the point of a harpoon.
He was only eighteen when he left Helsingfors for America fifty years ago. He had been in the ship-yards there for four years, until he knew a boat “from the keel to the last inch of topmast.” He came away from Finland like many another lad, bent on adventure and making his fortune. He could not speak a word of English, and when he reached Victoria, B.C., he deserted his ship, and remained in hiding for two months with a price of twenty pounds on his head. It was several years before he decided to go into sealing. In the meantime, because he was thrifty and ambitious, he saved a couple of thousand dollars working at anything that offered, but chiefly at ship-building, though he did some farming too.
A little vessel, called the Mountain Chief, caught his eye. She needed a good bit of repair work, but she was sturdily built. An Indian chief, “Big Mountain,” up on the Naas River, had made her out of seasoned yellow
cedar. Jacobson paid four hundred dollars for her and fitted her out for sealing.
A Bit of History
time immemorable the Pribylof Islands up in the Behring Sea have been the breeding grounds for fur seals on the coast of North America, and when the United States acquired the Islands from Russia, she leased to the North American Commercial Company the right to kill there annually one hundred thousand seals. Now control of the breeding grounds, unless it carried with it control of the sea itself, would not mean a monopoly of the sealing industry. Hence it is probable that private commercial interests persuaded the United States to set up a claim that the Behring Sea was a more clausum, although it is over a hundred miles wide, and a part of the Pacific Ocean.
Great Britain denied the right to a mare clausum on the ground that the Behring Sea was part of the high seas. Canada, of course, disputed the claim also, and from 1886 on, seizures of the sealing vessels by the Americans were frequent. Never a sealing captain put out from British Columbia or Puget Sound ports for the North, feeling sure that he would escape the United States cutters. And a great many of them suffered very serious losses. At one time the international situation was somewhat strained. ' But finally through the Treaty of Arbitration in 1893 the difficulty was settled. About a half million dollars was paid by the United States to owners of the seized vessels. It was decided that the Behring Sea was included in the term Pacific Ocean, and that the United States had no property rights outside the three-mile limit. But under regulations regarding pelagic sealing there was a closed zone of sixty miles around the Pribylof Islands, and a closed season between May first and August first, not only in Behring Sea, but in the Pacific Ocean, north of the thirty-fifth degree of latitude and east of the 180th degree of west longitude.
Fortunately for the sealing industry the United States did not let the matter rest there, however, and in 1911 a treaty was signed between the United States, Great Britain and Japan, prohibiting pelagic sealing for fifteen years.
And for fourteen years Captain Jacobson has been waiting. The year after next may see the Behring Sea open once more.
It is no wonder that the young Norseman was fired with an ambition to go into sealing. He was more at home on sea than on land, and there was a fortune for the taking. On some days the fur seals were so plentiful that, on a calm morning, the captain says, “just after sun-up, you could see them lying off the coast of North Vancouver Island far as your eye could travel, and so thick that you could have walked over ’em.” The sealers worked along the coast as far down as San Diego in the early spring, and went north about April or May. Pelts were worth anywhere from eight dollars to twenty-five in the London market, and a schooner averaged from one thousand to fifteen hundred skins.
Jacobson did not venture at first into disputed territory, but contented himself with hovering around the coast. He secured a crew of Indians, and that spring his little schooner took in over 700 skins, netting him more than a thousand dollars. He goes on to say:
Days of Adventure
T WAS greatly encouraged, and I made up my mind A t0 8° further afield next year. This was in 1886 and stories were coming down to us of a pretty serious situation up north. Some of the schooners sailed away Continued on page 62
SealingSkippers Preparing for 1926
Continued from page 15
never to come back. There were the Carolina, the Thornton and the Onward, as staunch little boats as one would wish to see. The United States cutter Corwin seized them up in the Behring, put their officers in prison and set the Indian crews ashore to shift for themselves. It was bad enough for the white men, and more than one of ’em never lived to come out but it was tragedy for the Indians. They only had their canoes, and it is seven hundred miles from Sitka to their villages on Vancouver Island. No one will ever know how many of them died from starvation or were drowned.
So when I decided to run the gauntlet of the gunboats I had a mighty hard time getting an Indian crew. It was easy enough so long as I was off the coast, but they were scared to death of the men-o’-war. Why, at the very sight of a spiral of smoke on the horizon the Si wash es used to scutter to their bunks and hide under anything they could lay their hands on. However, I managed at last to pick up four canoes and eight Indians. I already had three white men. We sailed in the little Mountain Chief, and the crowd on the wharf laughed to see us go, the smallest vessel that had ever defied the gunboats in the Behring Sea.
A big fleet of sealers was ahead of us. But that didn’t affect our catch. We were six weeks on the way, and we guided our ship as they steer ’em to-day, by Mount St. Elias, sticking up out of the ocean. And just this side of Behring Sea I met the Wanderer.
“The Yanks have been after me,” he says. “The Silver Andy from Frisco’s just been seized, and they’re chasing Warren’s fleet. They’ll get some of ’em for sure.”
Dodging the Gunboats
WARREN’S fleet was the proudest thing that ever put to sea from Victoria. Fine big vessels, brand new, snowy white canvas, oh, a pretty sight! I didn’t say anything. I knew when I left home what I was in for, but I was willing to take the risk. Once in forbidden waters I was mighty careful. I would anchor the Mountain Chief in some little cove, and keep a constant watch. One day while the canoes were out, I saw the U.S. gunboat Rush. She had a ship in tow. Instantly I lowered all sails, and my spars against the timber of the wooded land could not be seen. I saw her again the next day, but she didn’t catch sight of us. We hung around for three weeks until I’d got close to 2,000 skins, and then we sailed for home. Here I learned that a lot of Warren’s fleet had been taken and that most of my good old friends were in jail at Sitka.
It was the next year that word came
to us that we were to have the protection of British cruisers. That was enough for me. It wasn’t true, but I believed it and it was all the same thing. After a good catch on the coast I went up to Behring Sea and got a full load of skins and never set eyes on a gunboat at all.
I was getting rich. It had been a hard trip, that last. , Storms were frequent, and they can be pretty bad in those waters. I had to take the wheel for sixty hours at a stretch. But I was young and making good. Besides I was going to be married when I got home.
On the 15th of November, 1888, I signed my marriage contract and the contract to build my new schooner, the Minnie, named for my wife. And a good little boat she was; a money-maker. Fifty tons, with a fine spread of canvas. We carried ten canoes, twenty-one Indians and an Indian cook. Sealing as we went along, straight ahead we made for the forbidden waters. Didn’t I have the customs officer’s assurance that the British gunboats would stand by?
Well, they didn’t.
It was the fifteenth day of July, and I had just taken aboard seven hundred skins. My mind was at rest. The day was calm and warm and misty; the sea like glass.
Suddenly I saw looming out of the fog a familiar shape. It was the Rush making straight for us.
The “Minnie” is Captured
I JUST had time to hide our shotguns when she drew alongside, and we were boarded by a lieutenant and a dozen marines.
“Hand over ypur papers,” says the officer.
“How’s this?” I said. “I’m under the protection of the British Navy.”
“Oh no, you’re not,” says he; “you’re poaching and you know it. Where are your guns?”
“We don’t carry guns,” I lied, and then added truthfully. “The Indians only use spears.”
I had a big Norwegian mate at the time. He was roaring mad at the prospect of losing our boat and our catch. When I took the lieutenant into my cabin, the mate followed and without a word, grabbed him by the throat.
“Get out the guns, Victor,” he shouted, nearly giving the show away. (I had guns for all the white hunters and a few spare ones besides.) “Get out the guns and chase ’em off the boat.”
Well, it was my duty to protect the American officer, and I did so, but I had a fight with the mate first. Then the lieutenant says quietly: “How about those guns?”
I gave him mine and the mate’s and another one which I declared were all we had.
Then they rounded up the spears. We
had hidden some of them, but they
"It's my boat,"
“It’s the Minnie! She’s safe.” And sure enough. She had cleverly hidden herself until the wind came. She just stopped long enough to pick us up and then we raced for Victoria. I took my friend the lieutenant straight away to the American consul and handed him over. He stayed a week in Victoria, and we saw him every day. But the sight of his uniform brought forth many hostile glances along the waterfront. Too many of us had suffered from seizure and capture to feel very friendly. Nothing ever happened to the Minnie or me as a result of my high handedness, and the American officer has always been my good friend. He lives over in Port Angeles now, and often drops over for a week-end, and we recall those dare-devil days when the Rush and Corwin were after us, and the British gunboats hovered in the offing.
The days that followed were crammed with wild adventure, which ranged from hair-breadth escapes from gunboats to fights with Indian sealers, and the riding out of gales in the reef-strewn wastes of the Behring Sea. With the enforcement of the treaty Captain Jacobson’s activities ceased, however, and he took up more peaceful pursuits along the coast. But he is not satisfied.
“I’m waiting now,” says he, “until 1926, and if the treaty is not renewed I’ll go sealing again. I’ve had some pretty fine offers to engage in other business these last few years, for I suppose I know the coast as well as most men, and am as willing as most to take chances. But I always drew the line at certain things: opium smuggling in the old days, and to-day boot-legging and hi-jacking. There’s no real profit in any such undertakings. So, when the ban is lifted, I’ll take my two vessels—they’ll be ready by then, and sail once more to the Behring Sea hunting grounds.”