Gig Harbor fishing boat sailed for 77 years, wrecked in harbor by Bellingham winds

The Bergen in Bellingham Bay on Friday, a day after a storm yanked it off its mooring.
The Bergen in Bellingham Bay on Friday, a day after a storm yanked it off its mooring. Courtesy Washington Department o

In his younger days, Jim Richards saw dollar signs when storms rolled in at the start of fishing season.

The Gig Harbor man knew they’d drive away many of his competitors, giving him and his crew in the steady Bergen more room to rake in the cod they sold to raise their families.

“That boat could go out and do anything, and it was better than the bigger boats,” Richards said over the weekend.

Yet the storm that destroyed his 57-foot-long boat last week caught it in a moment when it should have been safe.

Fierce gusts took hold of the Bergen early Thursday while it sat moored on a supply run in Bellingham Bay, snapping three lines that tied it to a dock and pulling it from the harbor.

It broke “like a twig” on a rock-packed seawall, Richards said.

Those 70-miles-per-hour winds ended the story of a 77-year-old boat Richards owned since 1984. He bought it when he was 27, and used the money he earned on it to raise his six children and to launch other businesses around Gig Harbor.

“The Bergen has caught millions and millions and millions of pounds of halibut and it has provided really good jobs for guys for a long time,” said Richards, 59. “It’s sad that she’s gone.”

Three of Richards’ long-time crew members were on the boat when it lost its mooring and slammed into the seawall. One issued a distress call when they woke up hearing unusual noises about 5:30 a.m.

Two sailors were able to put on cold-water immersion suits before they slipped into the bay. The third had to dive into the water to retrieve an emergency suit before he was able to put it on, the Bergen’s captain, John Bickford, told The Bellingham Herald.

All three were pulled to safety by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Richards was not with them. He last put in a full fishing season on the Bergen in 2012.

Bickford called him with the news after the crew’s rescue.

“It just hit something mid-ship, and the ship just broke,” Richards said.

Like Richards, the Bergen has its roots in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. He grew up there, while his boat was built at its Sagstad Shipyard in 1939.

Richards has a photo of the boat on its maiden voyage. The background showing Seattle has little more than a cluster of one- and two-story homes.

The Navy took control of the boat during World War II, and used it to ferry sailors between Los Angeles County and a base on Catalina Island.

After the war, a Norwegian immigrant named Mikal Johnson bought the boat and sailed it for decades, Richards said. He remembered that Johnson grew up in Bergen, Norway, the city that gave his ship its name.

Johnson was in his early 70s by the time Richards wanted to buy the Bergen. Johnson’s crew had a last hurrah before parting with it. They hauled in something like 30,000 pounds of halibut on that last trip.

Johnnson was “72 and he was the youngest guy on the ship,” Richards said. “That must’ve been a great time for those guys.”

For about 10 years, Richards sailed constantly on the Bergen, capturing halibut and cod from Oregon to Alaska. He loved those days, and remembered the Bergen sitting calmly at sea when other boats rollicked.

“That boat was tremendous,” he said. “I’ve fished on a lot of different boats. Some of the boats were great sea boats but they never stopped rolling. With the Bergen, you’d get there and she’d just stop. She would just sit there.”

He kept the boat even as his interests turned to commercial real estate development, and more recently, opening a fast food franchise in Gig Harbor.

He liked to think he could work a season if he needed the money, or offer a job to one of his sons.

That’s one reason he kept putting money into the boat. In recent years, he’d rebuilt its engine, installed a new deck and bought equipment that automatically baited fishing lines so the crew could make the most of their time at sea.

He said he didn’t want to “reminisce” when a reporter called him Saturday to talk about his boat. But then he got talking and shared memories about his boat for half an hour.

“It’s all because of the Bergen,” he said.

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646, @TNTMilitary