There’s a nearly 100-year-old wooden boat in Petersburg that’s become a staple of the tight-knit local music scene. Musicians in town have a few performance spaces to choose from, a lot of them in bars. But the crew of the Roedda brings a unique option with them when they come to town — transforming the boat’s fish hold into an improvised sound stage.
On a brisk Thursday night last month in Petersburg’s South Harbor, the chill was already starting to set in and the people were starting to pour out of town. Alex Deacon is the captain of the Roedda. But tonight, she’s also the master of ceremonies for an open mic on board — the last of the season.
“We got all sorts of accommodations, lots of debauchery — but good heathens, we are!” Deacon called out to a crowd gathered on the deck of the Roedda. “We don’t have amps, but we have music and people who want to play, so get comfortable — and there’s instruments down there. None of us are perfect. I would love to just encourage anyone who’s brave enough to volunteer. Anybody…?”
At Deacon’s invitation, a handful of people started tuning their guitars, banjos, and mandolins. The Roedda is an 80-foot wooden tender boat painted black and white. It’s used for moving seafood and ice between fishing grounds and the local processor, OBI Seafoods. The fish is stored in large holds below deck. But tonight, that space is for creating sound.
Husband and wife duo Robyn and Daniel Cardenas were the first to climb down into the hold using a narrow metal ladder. Spectators on deck could just see the tops of their heads. The music bounced off the steel walls, reverberating up and out towards the audience.
The rest of the boat has a lot of character too. Roedda crew member Aaron Gore-Rife — who is also Deacon’s partner — said the crew likes to think that of all the creaks and pops the old boat makes is just her “putting her two cents” into the conversation.
“Sometimes, you’ll be making a point — and she’ll go off,” said Gore-Rife. “And as I see it, the boat agrees with me!”
“She purrs!” said Deacon.
The Roedda was built in 1931. In addition to fish, she’s held mail and freight in her hold throughout her long life. According to Deacon, she also put out a house fire in Sitka sometime in the late 30s with her deck hose.
Deacon said being a part of that legacy is important to her.
“You’re talking about 96 years of different people maintaining this piece of machinery,” said Deacon. “We want to do the company and the history of the boat proud by carrying on the same habits.”
But the Roedda of today is breaking with the past in some ways. Deacon is proud to be one of just a handful of female captains in the local fishing fleet. And the crew is starting new traditions – like the fish hold open mic. And they don’t just host the music — they’re making it too.
“There’s a mixture of jazz, of country, of ragtime…” said Deacon. “The fun part is that playing around with other musicians kind of molds itself into something unexpected.”
Gore-Rife said the band is pretty resourceful — they like to use what they have onboard.
“What we like to do is we create a lot of junk instruments,” said Gore-Rife. “Just instruments that are random things that you can put into someone’s hands, and anyone can pick it up like. Like the gut bucket!”
True to its name, the gut bucket used to hold actual fish guts.
“Yeah, it had a job,” said Deacon. “Now it has a different job.”
Now, it’s an instrument, played by many who come aboard.
“I’m pretty sure it’s derived from the old washtub bass,” said Gore-Rife. “It’s just a way to get music in people’s hands — it’s not a big fancy instrument.”
“It’s very easy to build,” Deacon added.
“All you need is a five gallon bucket, a washer, any kind of string with some stretch to it, and a stick — and that’s it,” said Gore-Rife. “And then [you] just kind of find wherever you feel most comfortable pulling it and tweaking it, and then you get this lovely… THOOM.“
In fitting with Roedda’s DIY theme, Gore-Rife uses an old cigarette lighter to pluck the string.
Deacon said the gut bucket is just one of many manifestations of the crew’s creativity, fueled by life at sea. They all take turns practicing on wheel watch: the window of time when they’re running their product to town, which typically takes 12 to 24 hours.
“Alaska offers a vast amount of inspiration from the scenery, so it can really help with art,” said Deacon. “I think some of my best music has come from being on a boat for too long.”
That artistic space Deacon and her crew have cultivated is just a temporary one. The crew is hanging up their guitars — and their buckets — for the season. And guests say they’ll miss being part of the weird little community around the Roedda’s fish hold.
“Well, singing in a fish hold for an open mic night is pretty darn special,” said visiting musician Tonia Whitethorn, who is also the vocalist for local band Rockfish. “[It] doesn’t seem like that happens in very many places, right? Welcome to Alaska.”
Bubba Schill is a regular at the Roedda.
“I want to tell you how happy I am to be playing music with all these folks down here on this boat,” said Schill. “[I come here] every time they got an open mic! [It’s] where the music’s at. I love the fact that… you can’t always just go be yourself in a musical, artistic, creative environment. And here, you can. So, accolades.”
Deacon said there’s no rest for the useful. She and Aaron will spend the winter in Washington state retrofitting a short bus as a travel home. And the Roedda will sit at the docks, songless, until summer returns.