By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
It’s deep, dark and cold. There are ratfish, a few barnacles and lots of silt. Only expert divers visit the watery grave of the Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea.
“It’s dangerous diving that wreck. My first time, it was the deepest dive I’d ever done,” said Scott Boyd, co-author along with Jeff Carr of “Northwest Wreck Dives.”
“The lure is the history,” Boyd said Wednesday. “I like the old wrecks laying on the bottom, where nobody gets to see it.”
Thirty years ago this week, I was among Herald workers watching from the newsroom window as the 336-foot fish processing ship sank in Port Gardner, about a half-mile from shore.
The ship, which went down on Oct. 22, 1982, had belched smoke for several days. It was anchored off the Port of Everett’s Pier 1, and was being repaired when a crew member’s torch ignited insulation on the ship. Fire officials feared explosions from ammonia used in refrigeration. The crew was evacuated, but the Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea was lost.
Herald writer Jim Haley, now retired, chronicled its demise in 2007, the 25th anniversary of the sinking: “The stern went down, and for a final few seconds the bow poised like a smoking whale,” Haley wrote.
Built in Wisconsin in 1945, the vessel was first a private cruise ship, the Coastal Guide. It was at times used by the Army and Navy. In the end, it was owned by the TransAlaska Fisheries Corp., a subsidiary of a corporation created by Congress to compensate Alaska Natives for loss of land. After the sinking, a $14 million insurance claim was paid to the owners.
Today, the blue-gray waters are just as they were in 1982, but the view has changed. It wasn’t until 1987 that a ground-breaking ceremony was held for Naval Station Everett.
At the Navy base this week, spokeswoman Kristin Ching said the Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea wreck is marked on navigation charts. “It’s not something that has come up,” said Ching, adding that Navy divers work mostly to maintain home-ported ships.
Walter Jaccard has made the dive to the Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea three times.
“It’s a big ship, almost 350 feet long and 50 feet high, sitting on its starboard side,” said Jaccard, president of the Submerged Cultural Resources Exploration Team. The Seattle-area nonprofit group explores, identifies and documents sunken ships, aircraft and other wreckage, mostly in the Northwest.
The top of the wreck is at least 180 feet down, and the seabed where it rests is deeper. Depth is relative. The wreck of the Titanic is more than 12,000 feet — more than two miles — down in the north Atlantic, and can be reached only by deep-diving submersibles.
“Most recreational divers don’t go deeper than 130 feet,” said Jaccard, 59. “When you dive on the shipwreck, you’re doing what people call technical diving. It requires specialized training.”
While it takes about five minutes to descend to the Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea, coming back up — decompression — is a complicated process. It takes nearly an hour and requires extra tanks with a different mix of gas.
Boyd said the wreck is just north of a yellow mooring buoy, unrelated to the Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea, that is used for anchoring barges.
Because the area has little current, Jaccard said the wreck’s top is covered with silt. “It looks like you’re landing on the bottom, instead of a shipwreck,” he said. Yet along the top of the port side, there’s a walkway with a railing. “On that side of the ship, you find yourself imagining what it would be like to be on that ship, going down that walkway,” Jaccard said.
The wheelhouse, refrigeration and processing areas are intact, said Jaccard, who has been inside the ship using hand-held high-intensity lights.
Although no lives were lost in the fire or sinking, Jaccard was involved in a sad recovery. In June 1994, a man in his 40s was lost while diving at the Al-Ind-Esk-A Sea wreck with two other men.
Everett police divers searched the area, but a police spokesman said at the time that the police dive team wasn’t equipped to safely go as deep as the wreckage. Jaccard said Wednesday he was involved in finding the man’s body more than a year later.
Boyd, who is 50 and lives in Olympia, said his book covers hundreds of area shipwrecks. One well-known wreck is the SS Governor, a luxury liner that was hit by another ship off Port Townsend in 1921. Eight people were believed to have drowned in that disaster.
Jaccard said the SS Governor is beginning to fall apart. “The bow has started to separate,” he said.
“There are lots of sunken ships. There aren’t a lot of big metal ships like this one,” Jaccard said of the wreck off Everett. “Because she’s recent, she’s in very good shape.”
The Submerged Cultural Resources organization is “a small group of committed people, divers, who spend a lot of time doing research,” Jaccard said.
The group was recently contacted by an elderly man who saw, from a sailboat, two military aircraft collide over Lake Washington long ago. Jaccard said he plans to interview the man in Oregon, “to bring history to life.”
“A wreck has significance,” he said. “It has a story to tell.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, firstname.lastname@example.org.