JUNE 14, 2015—Everyone who has ever seen the commercial fishing reality TV show The Deadliest Catch has a favorite captain, crew, and boat. If you’ve caught an episode or two, you realize just what a beating the crew and these boats can take during a season of crabbing in the Bering Sea.
Alan Haig-Brown reports that one of the stars of the show, the fishing vessel Cornelia Marie, has just completed a service life extension. The Bering Sea crabber has gained a wide public following both for the family saga of ownership and for her role in a popular television series that portrays the challenges of one of the world’s toughest fisheries.
When Roger Thomas and his partner Kari Toivola began searching for a Bering Sea crab investment, Roger called Casey McManus. Casey has skippered the Cornelia Marie and is a shareholder in the boat. After checking with Josh Harris another owner, he got back to Thomas and Toivola with an offer of a 50% stake in the famous boat. The two flew to Dutch Harbor in January 2015 to inspect the vessel.
From the dock, her classic aft cabin style and her 128- by 28-foot ultra-marine blue hull carried the same impressive look that she had when custom built at Horton Boats in Bayou LaBatre Alabama in 1989. Much of the boat checked out well but, from the engine room, they could see that 70 percent of the steel deck under the accommodation block was badly deteriorated and would need to be replaced. A pair of tired 650 hp Mitsubishi mains were also badly in need of replacement as were two of the three gensets. But the Cornelia Marie is an impressive boat capable of packing a lot of crabs or, for tendering, a lot of salmon in her six insulated holds. The holds circulate seawater when crabbing and then become RSW when tendering salmon. She also tenders on the herring seine fishery.
“We knew that, if we bought shares in her, she would require new engines and new decking under the accommodation area,” Thomas explained.
Buying a large older boat that has been worked hard is not for the faint of heart, but Thomas and Toivola are accustomed to risk. In 1986, when they were both still in their twenties, they borrowed money to add to their fishing earnings and purchased an offshore supply vessel in Louisiana. It was in the midst of a downturn in the oil patch and they got the 125-foot boat for significantly under the cost of building her in 1981. With support from some older fishermen, they completed much of her conversion to a crabber before bringing the boat, now named Deception, around to Seattle for final preparation. They have fished her successfully for nearly 30 years now and she has served them well. But she packed significantly less that the Cornelia Marie. For salmon tendering, the Cornelia Marie can pack 630,00 pounds in RSW. For crabs, which are carried live in circulating seawater, she packs up to 315,000 pounds.
“We made an offer for the Cornelia Marie in March and immediately began ordering equipment,” recalled Thomas, “By the time the deal had closed in April, we had already ordered a pair of electronic-controlled 750 hp Cummins QSK19-M diesels to replace the mains. We put mechanical Cummins KTA19s in the Deception 10 years ago and they have given good service. So we went with the new version of the same engine.”
In some businesses a person might wait for the papers to be signed before ordering components, but fishing works on tight schedules. The partners had a commitment for a Bristol Bay tendering charter for the Cornelia Marie to start in mid-June. There was no time for niceties. The boat arrived in Seattle on March 17 and went straight to the shipyard. An hour later she was in the dry dock. The main accommodation area, including the mess and galley, was gutted. The concrete floor and the steel under it were taken up. “For much of the time that we were working on the boat we had plywood over the steel framings for the floor,” recalled Toivola.
“The new engines arrived about three weeks after the boat got here,” recalled Thomas, “And only a week after the deal on the boat closed.”
The mains coming out were in-line six-cylinder as were the mains going in so the modification of the bed was not too bad. Not wanting to cut the liners and insulation in the holds and with much of the accommodation area torn apart, they removed the old engines and installed the new ones through a hole cut in the front of the house. Roger Thomas oversaw the engine replacement, “I’ve done quite a few repowers,” he said. “The old engines had gears with different ratios but we got new Twin Disc [gears] with 4.5:1 reduction. The original 56-inch props were re-pitched and the shafts were pulled and machined.”
Cummins Northwest designated former crabber and Time Bandit engineer Mike Fourtner, Marine Regional Sales rep, as liaison on the job. “Mike is a great guy and he was a lot of help,” said Thomas, “I could call him or he would stop by.”
Start up on the new engines was in the last week of May and sea trials were on June 2. Cummins had Tony Thomas, Regional Manager for Commercial Marine Propulsion, on board along with application engineers Brian Pinkstaff and Joe Tobin. Although it was determined that the wheels were slightly over pitched, the decision was made to leave for Bristol Bay on June 6 in order to meet the tendering commitment. Only 10 weeks after arriving in Seattle the Cornelia Marie was headed back north with new mains, two new gensets, new galley and accommodations, 50 percent of the steel under the new wood deck had been replaced and a multitude of minor projects all completed.
McManus, Thomas and Toivola were all on board for sea trials along with Jack Molan who will skipper the boat for the tendering job. Thomas, sitting at the new galley table, was looking forward to the start of the crab fishery next fall. “We expect to put a lot of crab through her,” he said, “With our own and leased quota we are planning for about 200,000 pounds each of King Crab and Bairdi and another million pounds of Opilio.”