Voyage from Homer to Bristol Bay commemorates fishery’s sailing tradition

a sailboat on the water
The Libby, McNeil & Libby No. 76. (Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust photo)

For more than 60 years, sailboats dominated Bristol Bay’s commercial fishery. Motorized vessels were illegal. Then, in 1951, the federal government finally allowed motorized fishing vessels in Bristol Bay.

LaRece Egli, the director of the Bristol Bay Historical Society Museum in Naknek, says that made sailing obsolete almost immediately for the fishery.

“I think it’s literally down to 50 or 46 boats or something like that in 1954, and then they just disappear,” she said.

By 1952, powerboats outnumbered sailboats 4 to 1. In less than five years, every commercial vessel had a motor.

This year, local historians are bringing the sailing tradition back to the bay with a vessel named the Libby, McNeil & Libby No. 76. Tim Troll is the executive director of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust and one of the sailing crew. They launched from Homer on July 5.

“We launched this morning at about 9 (a.m.),” Troll said. “It’s a beautiful, nice, sunny day with very calm weather.”

The sailboat has crossed the Cook Inlet, sailing toward Naknek.

“The boat is on its way,” he said. “It’s sailing nicely right now. We’ve got four guys aboard, and it just looks beautiful out there.”

Troll said in an email that they made it to their first stop, Williamsport, on Wednesday night. They carried the boat across the portage to Lake Iliamna and planned to reach Pedro Bay that evening.

The crew expected to visit Iliamna and Newhalen and then head on to Kokhanok and Igiugig. It will visit Levlock on July 17 and the vessel is scheduled to arrive in Naknek on July 19.

Egli says the journey commemorates an iconic period in the fishery’s history.

“Those sails, sailing out on the horizon of our bay, are really visual icons, and they’re one of those grounding visual markers for both our canning industry, for the labor issues, independence of our fishermen, and also for our Indigenous story in our community,” she said.

Troll plans to update KDLG on their voyage over the next few weeks. More information about their journey is available on the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust website.

The Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust and the Bristol Bay Historical Society Museum have also partnered to purchase the boat.

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