From Classic Yachts to Fish Packers: Their Stories

Pelican: In the World of Wooden Boats

Pelican is hauled out October 15, 2020 weighing in at 150 tons. Photograph by Patrick Burns.

The one-time research vessel Pelican was hauled out at Port Townsend’s Boat Haven Marina in October and parked prominently opposite the heavy-lift pier. Surrounded by a scaffolding of A-frames and cross planking, the boat nonetheless draws your attention. First off, it has the delightful name: Pelican and secondly, its hull and lower house are painted orange; it shouts orange. Then one realizes what a deep draft she has: ten feet for a seventy-eight foot-long hull. And her house is long, so long it defines her not as a yacht but a specialized work boat – elegance thrown over for utility. But then your eye follows the sheer strake, where the hull meets the deck, uncluttered by a bulwark or rail as it sweeps towards the bow in an absolutely beautiful curve.

When I saw Pelican, I knew I’d write about her. I suspected she was government-built in the 20’s or 30’s, had been taken care of with little sign of hull re-planking or framing work, so often the dollar sign death-knell of wooden boats. I stopped and photographed her and then began to research the history of the little ship.

I was surprised to discover that, though she had been designed by Seattle marine architects H.C. Hanson and L.E. Coolidge as a research vessel for the US Bureau of Fisheries (BOF), she was built in Newport News, Virginia. Launched and fitted out by the Boat Harbor Marine Railway in the summer of 1930, the officially named BOF Pelican headed north to Maine to replace the steam-powered fisheries vessel BOF Gannet.

Pelican’s original blueprints dated March 7, 1928 by Coolidge & Hanson Marine Architects, Seattle.

At that time the Bureau of Fisheries (originally the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries authorized by Congress in 1871) was dedicated to amassing scientific data on coastal and offshore marine life being decimated by the fishing industry. Pelican home ported in Boothbay Harbor and worked inshore and offshore to monitor and help sustain various fish stocks. After a full refit in 1937 added new scientific equipment including a 5000-foot hydrographic winch for deep-water hydrographic and biological surveys, Pelican headed for New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico to do “shrimp investigations.” Notably she was instrumental in discovering that brown shrimp migrate to deeper Gulf waters in winter, thereby launching a new fishery.

In 1940 the Bureau of Fisheries was renamed US Fish and Wildlife Service which packed the now USFS Pelican aboard the US Navy transport USS Vega to arrive in Puget Sound in April of 1941. Shortly after World War II began, the US Army would requisition her and station her at Seward, Alaska to service the lookout stations dotting the Alaska coastline.

Pelican in her research rig, unknown location and date. NOAA photograph.

After the war, the Fisheries Service worked her out of Juneau before loaning Pelican to the Washington State Department of Fisheries from 1958 to 1970. With the state, she patrolled the Washington coast tracking commercial fishing boats and their catches. Finally, being returned to the now National Marine Fisheries Service, Pelican was sold in 1972 to a private owner by the name of Walter C. Masland of Port Angeles, Washington for $16,000. Walt and his wife Marilyn promptly pointed Pelican up the Inside Passage. At some point they painted Pelican orange.

Walt Masland would pass away in 2015 and Marilyn would follow in 2019. Before she died, she sold Pelican to Patrick Burns and John (Johnny) Sylvester who brought her up to Deer Harbor on Orcas Island. Now, after three years, it was time for a haul out at Boat Haven where I met them.

I arranged for an end-of-the-workday conversation, brought a six-pack of IPA down to the yard and joined Johnny and Patrick on the Pelican’s fantail to talk about Masland, the boat and themselves. Both owners are 47, Johnny wiry and animated, Patrick broad-shouldered and measured. They had grown up together on the Jersey shore, stayed in contact, and both were interested in buying a boat when the Pelican came up for sale.

John (Johnny) Sylvester, Patrick Burns and Pelican

Johnny had come west in 1994 after a semester-at-sea aboard the schooner Spirit of Massachusetts. Driving a Ford Escort with his then girlfriend Abi, they aimed for Seattle where Johnny got a job at Captain’s Nautical Supplies before working for Roy Dunbar at Seattle’s Lockhaven Marina and then to Seattle Shipwrights Coop. As Johnny put it: “…and then I am in the world of wooden boats.” Patrick was living in Chicago when Johnny told him about Pelican. Saying goodbye to the corporate world, Patrick drove west while Johnny negotiated the purchase of Pelican and Patrick signed the bill of sale while passing through Beaver Creek, Colorado.

They knew they had a “lucky boat” as Johnny put it. He began to describe Pelican proudly as “A heavily built boat! 8″x 8″ white oak framing 16″ apart, 2.58″ long-leaf yellow pine hull planks. When you get to the bilge work it’s 3.75″. You can lie in the mud on the side scantlings (the spacing of vertical frames as a measure of the hull’s structural strength).” At the same time Walt Masland’s name kept popping up as Johnny and Patrick praised the craftsmanship Walt had put into upkeep of the now 91-year-old Pelican.

They brought out Walt’s scrapbooks with photographs of the solo rebuild of the fantail stern, the added hatch over the engine room and rebuilt decks treated with linseed oil and turpentine. In researching Pelican, I found a 2014 article on her by David G. Sellars in the Peninsula Daily News. When I contacted him, he told me: “Every single day he was trudging down to his bloody boat.” Walt logged his hours for every boat project; the fantail rebuild totaled 3,000 hours. As we looked at the scrapbooks and the original plans, Johnny looked up and said: “We have their ashes on board.”

Walt Masland captured in his scrapbooks.

One curious design feature of the Pelican was that the deckhouse cabins were separate, accessed by exterior doors. Though Walt was determined to maintain Pelican as she was designed, he opened up companionways between cabins and created a master stateroom from the captain’s cabin and the radio room, making the boat both practical and comfortable.

As to the engine, both Johnny and Patrick vied to explain yet another curious Pelican fact: the nearly 70 year-old Joshua Hendy 6-cylinder, 200-horsepower diesel engine (the name spoken with hushed reverence by Johnny) is direct reversing. “There’s no transmission; we use air starts from a compressor – only 8 engine starts in the standby air tank. Coming into a dock we come in silent (engine off) until we have to go into reverse. Even if we have a lot of wind, we are pretty deep in the water and very heavy. Pelican has a lot of inertia.”

That ‘inertia’ proves out at sea too: “She’s very comfortable.” continued Johnny. “On a head sea there’s no bulwarks to stop (the water) from shedding. You can almost be in a beam sea. Coming across Dixon Entrance,  just a little bit of a beam sea and she rides. She doesn’t roll much; she’s not snappy.” Patrick quietly summed it up: “A tremendous presence on the water.” 

Johnny installing a new section of steam-bent 2.5 inch-thick starboard sheer plank. Photograph by Patrick Burns.

When I asked Johnny what work they have been doing, I got a lesson in boat building terminology: “Replacing 20 feet of sheer plank on port, 16 feet on starboard. Up in the bow, 25 feet of sheer plank and 3 planks below, cut and replaced the margin board and covering board.”* He ended with a smile: “Other than that, painting and rot chasing.”

So what is in store for the future of, as Johnny prefers, the USFS Pelican? “We are going to do day-charters, afternoon cruises as a six-pack (six passengers) out of Orcas Island. Patrick and I both have 100-ton licenses.”

We nodded to each other and sipped our beers as the winter sun set. I remembered that Johnny had told me he’d learned from Marilyn that Walt, then approaching 80, had decided to sell the boat. Rumor has it that he’d priced her at $385,000 and he had a buyer. But the potential new owner had plans to strip out the interior, put in a new, more powerful engine and other jarring ideas that, even when the buyer offered $400,000, Walt refused. Instead, after Walt died, Marilyn sold it to Johnny and Patrick for more or less the same deal Walt scored buying Pelican in 1972. She was sold to shipwrights with the same skills, respect and perhaps dreams. And yes, she now sports a new coat of orange paint. Pelican is in good hands.

Pelican awaits bottom paint, February 11, 2021.

Notes and Sources

* For a glossary of boat-building terms, consider the Oxford Handbooks Online “Illustrated Glossary of Ship and Boat Terms:  https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199336005.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199336005-e-48

Three Bureau of Fisheries boats were designed by Coolidge & Hanson. Teal served from 1927-1959, Crane from 1928-1959 and Pelican from 1930-1957. All three are afloat. Crane is in Southeast Alaska fish-packing for the gillnetters in Lynn Canal and chartering on the side. http://www.craneadventures.com/ Pelican’s sister ship Teal is a yacht soon to be home-ported in Anacortes. I contacted the owner to find that Teal is up for sale at a new price of $590,000. She can be seen in her current immaculate state at: https://classicyacht.org/boats/teal

From the NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center Historical Corner comes a well documented history of Pelican that most other sources, including me, relied on. The title is “Pelican, Impressive Service from Coast to Coast.” There’s more information on Pelican, Teal and Crane and the other fisheries research vessels within. https://archive.fisheries.noaa.gov/afsc/History/vessels/boats/pelican.htm

Robert M. Lane wrote a well-detailed and photographed article in 2010 entitled: “Sister Act” in PassageMaker, a yacht review and brokerage site. He follows the history of both Pelican and Teal. There are a couple images of Walt in the wheelhouse and engine room. https://www.passagemaker-digital.com/passagemaker/201010?folio=88&pg=91#pg91

David Sellars’s 2014 ‘On the Waterfront’ article in the Peninsula Daily News adds a more local connections about Pelican and Walt. https://www.peninsuladailynews.com/news/david-g-sellars-on-the-waterfront-1930s-era-wooden-vessel-well-traveled-at-home-in-port-angeles/

11 COMMENTS

  1. Great brief history of the Pelican. She & Walt are greatly missed in our Port Angeles Harbor and it’s good to learn she is well looked after. Bravo

  2. Thanks for this great story! I have been admiring Pelican for the past few months, and it’s great to be able to learn a bit about her history.

  3. Love this boat! The history Love and care. Pelican is truly its own person it definitely has the following I’m a friend of these guys , Happy to be ! If you see her come say hi. Well worth it. You Might just get a tour

  4. Wonderful article. Such a rich history and seeing the commitment of her owners shows the devotion to care and their respect for her.

  5. The new owners gave us a tour of the PELICAN this afternoon. I can’t wait until they are done with the restoration. It will be epic!

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