Some Skippers Sticking with Fiberglass on Bristol Bay

The 32-foot by 14-foot, six-inch f/v Bristol Annie docked at the Port of Astoria. Photo: Peter Marsh.

Last year’s record-breaking catch on Bristol Bay resulted in plenty of orders for new boats, with skippers predictably searching for the latest ideas to boost speed, capacity or efficiency.

This demand for highly customized designs is great news for the Pacific Northwest aluminum boat builders that can quickly adapt a hull to accept any type and sizes of engine, outdrive, waterjet, and the latest trend, the movable reel.

So the latest flood of orders barely caused a ripple in the handful of remaining fiberglass shops, whose entire business model centers on one or two 32-foot molds that produce identical fairly narrow hulls with a single engine. 

This makes a fiberglass hull very much a “take it or leave it” proposition unless a builder was prepared to re-tool the whole operation with a variable shape mold and numerous stern inserts. But there are still a few fishermen who value their glass boats enough that they would rather fight than change.

One of them was found this spring a few miles from Astoria, the historic home of the Northwest salmon fishery. Walking down the dock in the Port of Astoria boat basin, it’s easy to spot the new 32-foot Bristol Annie from the mirror-like finish one would expect from a new professionally built glass hull.

It also stood out among the small crabbers moored alongside with the high freeboard and top house. When I climbed aboard to meet the owner, Pete Huddleston, I could appreciate the 14′ 6″ beam, which identified it as a thoroughly modern Bristol Bay sternpicker gillnet boat.

He has been a fan of fiberglass for around 30 years, and was busy finishing the fitting out of his fourth glass boat—his first new build he informed me—and he isn’t shy about expressing his opinion on glass versus aluminum.

He began by telling me how he started working in a cannery in Alaska in 1982 to pay for college at Oregon State University, then found a place on an aluminum gillnetter on Cook Inlet. He stayed there for four years.

“There was always something rattling on that boat,” he said, as he described the general lack of comfort while working or relaxing that made him wonder if fiberglass might not be a better option.

“Spend enough time on a fiberglass boat and you will learn they have a completely different feel that makes everything you do a little bit easier,” he declared. “This is because they have far less noise, vibration and condensation than aluminum.”

However, it was 2006 before he could finally afford to buy his first glass boat, along with his own Bristol Bay permit. It was built by the Beck shop in Marysville, Wash. and had a 12-foot beam and 9,000 lbs. capacity.

In 2010, he added a second boat—one of the 28-foot fiberglass bowpickers produced in large numbers by Modutech in Tacoma in the 1970s. He continues to operate that on the Columbia River in the very limited salmon fishery off the main channel in Youngs Bay.

These boats can still be seen in the Astoria region, though more often in driveways than on the water, because commercial fishing is tightly regulated.

By 2014, the price of sockeye was rising, so Pete moved up to a Wegley Jumbo XL with a 12-foot, 6-inch beam and 12,000 lbs. capacity that he named the Oswald H after his grandfather, Oswald Hansen, who passed on his love for fishing in Alaska.

Huddleston got his first experience as a boy on the lower Columbia River in the 1970s when they were still hauling by hand on traditional wooden boats, he noted. For his new boat, he decided to have the hull laminated in the same well-used Wegley Jumbo mold that had produced dozens of identical single-screw gillnetters in the early 2000s.

But this time, it was to undergo major surgery before it left the building, because he wanted it widened by two feet. Fortunately, the method needed to create a “stretched” version of the Jumbo hull had been perfected in 2019 for another fiberglass fan, Keith Singleton, who had persuaded Jim Wegley, son of company founder Bill Wegley, to give it a try.

The result was the Miss Heather, which Keith has fished on the bay and in Washington. It has been widely admired for its clean lines and decks, but no buyers had stepped up.

Then, in 2022, Pete showed up at the Wegley fiberglass shop in Bellingham, Wash. but was dismayed to find that Jim Wegley had been forced to retire because of ill health. That looked like the end of the line for an operation that had turned out around 400 crafts since the 1970s, but Jim Wegley agreed to get the shop up and running again.

This adds a considerable complication to the standard one-piece molding system, but was the only way to have a modern high-capacity fiberglass hull built in the Northwest region. A small crew of experienced laminators was organized, and they set out to prove they could still turn out a first-class hull using this stretching process. This is a proven, but fairly drastic method; it can be broken down into several stages: 

Laminate the hull in the 12-foot, 6-inch beam mold.

Hoist it out, lower it to the floor and block the keel, supporting the chine on dollies.

Cut down both sides of the keel from the forefoot to the transom.

Spread each side away from the keel to create a 1-inch gap on each side.

Grind all the cut edges down to a taper.

Set up temporary mold surfaces under the two gaps.

Roll the outer gelcoat on the temporary mold.

Laminate the hull over the gelcoat to the ground tapers to original specifications.

While this variation of the original design could be considered a “stop-gap” system, there are no visible joints in the bottom, which is immensely strong and stiff with the additional laminate. To save weight and improve insulation on the interior components, every flat surface—bulkheads, frames, deck and house—are assembled from high-tech 1-1/2-inch-thick Nida Core panels.

These consist of a light and amazingly stiff plastic honeycomb core pre-laminated with fiberglass skins. The one-piece molded deck included eight fish holds, hatch coamings and incorporated scuppers, recessed cleats, etc. 

Below the waterline, the hull was delivered with the engine beds, plus housings for the shaft, rudder bow thruster etc., also part of the hull mold. This constitutes the typical “bare-hull” package, which was a very popular option for low-budget owners back in the 1970s and ‘80s, when fiberglass was king. Huddleston, whose home is in Cannon Beach, Ore., 20 miles south of the Columbia River, had the boat trucked to Astoria down Interstate 5 by a professional hauler, with the top house sitting on the aft deck.

He relied on a team of experienced local technicians to work on the boat over the winter, to ensure it would be ready for the offshore passage to Seattle in May—in time for the barge to Bristol Bay. Work on the Bristol Annie began onshore with the installation of the Motion Windows from Peninsula Glass in Vancouver, Wash., followed by the new QSM 11-liter 670 hp Cummins.

This Tier 3 six-cylinder block weighs in at 2620 lbs. and is turbocharged and aftercooled. It arrived with the recommended ZF 2:1 reduction gear, which turns a five-blade 26″ x 26″ screw that has been found to work well with the mold’s shallow tunnel. Trim is controlled by a pair of 18-inch deep Lenco trim tabs on the stern with a fixed “speed step” on the center line. 

Pete estimates the boat can carry at least 1,800 lbs. per hold, for a total of 14,400 lbs. with the ability to handle a maximum of 10,000 lbs. if necessary. In trials on the Columbia River, the Bristol Annie had enough power to cruise comfortably without a load at 12 knots, and probably could manage 7-8 knots with a full load of fish and 400 gallons of fuel in port and starboard tanks.

Engine-room access is via a Freeman hatch in the aft corner of the deck. I used it to gain access to the engine compartment where all the other machinery has been fitted neatly into the limited space in a very clean installation by Michalsky Fab & Repair. Interestingly, Jacob Michalsky told me he had just finished a similar project in Westport, Wash. this spring on a standard Wegley hull that the owner had modified to increase capacity.

Although there really aren’t many options with a molded hull, Huddleston paid particular attention to the deck layout to ensure that he can maintain the fish in top condition, based on his own experience and the requirements of his buyer, OBI Seafoods.

The chiller is an IMS 8.5 ton powered by a 1.25 liter, three-cylinder Isuzu diesel, located in front of the steering gear. The Eaton hydraulic pump on the Cummins powers the system that runs the Maritime Fab anchor winch and 8.5-inch Naiad bow thruster forward, the deck gear and the steering. 

The aft deck is covered with a rubber mat to protect salmon from bruising when dropped from the net. The eight holds are each rigged with three 600 lb.-capacity Nomar brailer bags custom sewn in a Homer, Alaska canvas shop.

The extra-wide net reel was custom-built by Maritime Fabrication in La Conner, Wash. with a four-shackle drum.

“It has a direct-drive 64 cubic-inch hydraulic motor with optional upgrades including stainless steel hydraulic motor mount and bearing with flame-spray coating,” Maritime Fab General Manager Isaac Oczkewicz noted.

The net roller is a galvanized cast-iron model off his last boat, which was completely re-built and vulcanized by Stuart Haas at Hydraulic Marine Equipment Co., in Clatskanie, Ore. Six of the hatch covers are SeaBoard HDPE panels, while the two forward hatches, the deck-locker door, railings etc. are custom aluminum from Western Fab of Astoria.

At the helm, the skipper has a padded suspension seat from Bentley’s Manufacturing of Milwaukie, Ore. with a daybed behind it. In the forecastle, there are bunks for four crew in the bow, with a galley, seating area, shower and head with hot running water aft.

Another local expert, professional marine engineer Russel Mead, installed all the electric circuits including the Garmin X5V GPS plotter, three Horizon VHF’s on the overhead and one handheld on the instrument panel, with a Com Nav auto pilot with jog stick and thruster control. He also assembled the plumbing for the RSW and the accommodation, plus some fiberglass finish work.

The crew of three to four has usually been composed of one or two of Huddleston’s children and their friends. And since the Oswald H is still in fine shape, he plans to sell it to his son-in-law, who has crewed for him for the last several years. So it looks like fishing in fiberglass gillnetters has really become a tradition in the Huddleston family.