Fish Tugs of the Greatest Lake
The Last Voyage Of The Vernon
By Walter B. Krackowski
The author of this narrative, Walter B. Krackowski (1935-2003) grew up at Grand Marais, Michigan, and spent his early youth working on the fish tugs there.
His boyhood friend, Ronald Baynton, has contributed three chapters of Walter's writings for publication on this web site.
The time finally came when I was big enough and old enough to get a job on a fish tug, and for a full wage, too! I sure felt grown up! It seemed like I had waited for twenty years. The year was 1950 and I was fourteen. My first job on a tug was to be short-lived and terminated by disaster.
In the past forty years I have read many stories of shipwrecks that occurred on the Great Lakes, many of which had great losses of life and property. Most accounts contained elements of fierce winds, dense fog, groundings, and collisions, and were written by well-known authors, with all the eloquence and precicely injected elaboration that holds the reader spellbound with anticipation.
While reading a book on shipwrecks of Lake Superior, I read a short entry about a fish tug that was lost while fishing out of Grand Marais, Michigan. The account stated that "On August 6, 1950, the thirteen-ton fish tug, the Vernon, was struck and sunk by the Interlake bulk freighter, the Harry Coulby, while running in fog."
Now, I don't propose to be any kind of literary genius or storywriter, but I feel I qualified to tell this story, because I was there.
I got a job on the Vernon, a thirty-nine foot tug owned by Lyle McDonald and operated by his brother, Ski. Lyle had purchased the Vernon the year before from Charley Ahlgrim. During the winter of 1949 and 1950, while frozen in the ice at Bethway's dock, Ed Soldinski modified the hull somewhat by cutting the fantail off and building a flat stern on her. At this time, they also pulled out the old Buick car engine and installed a new Caterpillar D44 marine engine.
She was a typical looking, older, wooden boat, with the pilothouse astern, which made a convenient three-man operation. She looked somewhat awkward inside because her ship's wheel, as well as her lifter, was on the port side, which was rare to see on most boats in Grand Marais. She was a gill net boat when Ahlgrim owned her, but McDonald fished her as a hook boat.
I had only made a few trips on her, with all of them being close runs to Mary's Hump, Chummy's Hump, Townline, and the bait net grounds, which was northeast from outside the piers.
This particular morning was Sunday, August 6, 1950. We left the dock at five-thirty a.m. and headed for the bait net grounds. On board was Ski as the skipper, Ski's brother-in-law, Kenny Niemi, and myself. We had loaded six boxes of hooks and had taken along two boxes of ice for icing the bait. It was to be a long day, as we were going to make the first trip of the year to Caribou Island. Everything went according to schedule. The lake was calm and the air was quite warm. We had both front gangways and the stern gangway open, while lifting bait nets. After lifting and icing the bait, we set the nets back.
Ski set the course for Caribou and said that we could now grab some lunch. We toasted our sandwiches on the engine's muffler, which was an old cook stove hot-water tank. It worked great for toasting sandwiches, and it also warmed the boat up, but it didn't muffle too well. Ski complained about it, saying it had a loud "bark." We started running for Caribou about eight-forty a.m. Ski was at the wheel while Kenny and I cleaned up, and washed down, the boat. Ski said, "I'll take her until we pass the downbound and then you can have her." Kenny and I will catch a little snooze for a couple of minutes and then one of us will relieve you. It was exactly nine o'clock when Ski said we were past the downbound course and that I could take the wheel. (The downbound course meant the Duluth to Sault Ste. Marie steamboat course.) He tied the wheel with a piece of buoy line and told me to keep an eye on the compass because she liked to wander due to a bent rudder. Hinged to the side of the pilothouse was a seat made out of an old school desktop, ink well hole and all. It had one two-inch by four-inch leg hinged to the bottom side that was placed diagonally to the deck and inside the gunwale. It made a hard, but functional seat.
I rigged the seat and got settled in for my turn at the wheel. Kenny had propped a net box against the raised stern deck and was already asleep in it. Ski had propped a net box against some boxes of hooks stacked on the stern deck, next to the rear gangway, on the starboard side. Within minutes he was also asleep. About every fifteen seconds I would have to put a little pressure on the wheel to port, as she had a tendency to wander to star-board. Had the wheel not been tied, you would constantly over-steer to port and when you let go unchecked, she would eventually go around in a big circle. I poured a cup of coffee from my thermos and glanced at the cover of an Erskine Caldwell pocket edition called "Journeyman," which was lying in the pilothouse. At that very moment, we collided!
The terrific jolt sent us all sprawling. The desktop seat collapsed under me, sending me to the deck below the stern deck. Ski had gotten thrown out of his net box onto the deck. Kenny had gotten tangled up with a box of hooks that had slid forward and off the stern deck onto him, as he slept. In the daze that gripped us all at that moment, I thought we had struck a floating tree, which I had heard were often seen floating on the lake at times. The time lapse must have been only a few seconds because when Ski and I got to our feet and looked out the forward pilothouse portholes, I saw this huge, rust colored steel wall sliding past our bow. We were bumping along side it, as our engine was still set on its gait and the clutch was still in forward position. The next thing I saw was the huge rudderpost and the white water turbulance being kicked up by a huge propeller.
The realization came to us that we had struck a freighter. Immediately, Ski ran up forward to check on how much damage had been done. Kenny was still busy with a fish knife, cutting himself free of the hook snoods that had toppled on top of him. The lifting machine had uprooted itself due to the impack, and I could see through a gaping hole where the bow stem used to be. Ski was tearing up the deck boards to inspect the hull. I looked at the clock in the pilothouse and it read 9:15 a.m. Ski came running back aft and said, "She's done for! We have to get off this thing! She's split clear back to the engine. Where in the hell is that steamboat?" In the excitement of that moment, he picked up the net box he had been sleeping in and threw it out the stern gangway.
We could see the steamboat in the distance off our starboard side. She was still underway, but appeared to be turning about in a circle. Ski took the wheel and started heading for the ship, in hopes of intercepting it. We finally came up along side of her on her starboard side, about midship, facing aft. We saw her name, Harry Coulby, Interlake Steamship Company. W climbed out onto the topside of our boat, to be taken off, but the men on the steamboat just stood along the rail, asking why we had run into them, and not in a very nice manner, either. All the while, the bow of our boat was slowly going under. At this time Ski remembered that our engine was still running at Idle, so Kenny climbed back down and shut her off. Then Ski hollered to the men on the ship to lower a ladder so that we could get off the boat before it went down from underneath us.
At that point they must have realized our situation was serious as they did what Ski suggested. We climbed up the ladder, a distance of about fifteen feet from the top of our boat to the deck of the steamboat. Once we were safely aboard, Ski suggested that they tie a line to the stern of our boat, pulling it up tight to the side of the Coulby. In this fashion, with the bow being damaged but the stern still up, they might be able to save her by pulling her stern first to Sault Ste. Marie. They agreed to do this and ran a three-inch hawser down and through the mooring ports on each side of the pilothouse of our boat and cinched it up tight to a bollard on the deck of the Coulby. With this in place, the Coulby started back on her course for the Soo.
It seemed to be working, but the bow kept sinking deeper with each passing minute. Within ten minutes of being towed in this manner, the whole bow section was underwater, up to the engine stack. Suddenly, due to the amount of drag pressure being too great for the aging, old, wooden pilothouse structure, the heavy hauser just tore through the stantions like they were matchsticks. The last thing we saw of the Vernon was her ship's wheel spinning crazily, and most of the bait that we had caught boiling up through the open stern doors as she plunged to the bottom. The Coulby talked to the Grand Marais Coast Guard Station by radio and informed them of the sinking of the Vernon, and that we were all safe and on board. The Grand Marais station called the Whitefish Point station instructing them to go out and intercept the Coulby and bring us ashore. They also notified our families of the sinking.
As we sat around on the hatch covers and talked to some of the crew of the Coulby, it started to dawn on us just how short a time had passed since we were on our way across the lake, never suspecting anything like this would ever happen. Just then, Ski remembered leaving the pair of binoculars aboard the Vernon that Lyle had brought home from the war. He had taken them off a German officer and they were his prize possession. He also felt bad about the loss of the new Caterpillar engine, recalling that it weighed thirty six hundred pounds with the price of it being a dollar a pound. It had been financed through a Munising bank and had not been insured.
Instead of the Coast Guard, a fisherman from Whitefish Point, Tommy Brown, with his steel tug, the LaBelle, intercepted the Coulby. We jumped from the deck of the Coulby onto the top of the LaBelle. When we got to Brown's dock, Kenny's brother was there waiting to take us back to Grand Marais with Kenny's old '41 Nash. As we were coming down the hill into town, I thought about all that had happened and it sure turned out to be a long day for us.
On Thursday, August 24th, Ski, Kenny, and I had to appear at the Municipal Building in St. Ignace for a Coast Guard inquiry. There were also members of the Coulby's crew there who had been on watch at the time, or had witnessed, the collision.
The findings of the inquiry concluded that the circumstances that caused the collision were as follows.
The presence of light patches of surface fog, due to the warm air temperature meeting the cold lake surface and the absence of any wind, which at times caused a one-quarter to one-half mile limit of vision.
A "blind" spot between the port-hole looking forward from the wheel and the porthole looking to port that obstructed the vision from the pilothouse of the Vernon.
The miscalulation of the Vernon's position by her crew, in respect to the steamboat course in which the Coulby was traveling.
The Coulby lacking a watchman aboard, on duty, at the time of the collision.
The testimony was unclear as to whether the Coulby sounded a warning signal prior to the collision.
Had a warning signal been sounded, it might not have been heard due to the loud exhaust of the Vernon's engine.
It is further believed that the culmination of all these factors led up to the collision, and eventual sinking of the Vernon.
Read more from Walter B. Krackowski: My Last Trip On The Preble
Posted to the Web on Nov. 20, 2007, for educational purposes only.