Seattle Sea Captain’s Memoir

Sea Travels: Memoirs of a 20th Century Master Mariner. J. Holger Christensen, as told to Vaughn Sherman. Patos Island Press, 189 pages, softcover, $15.95.

Sea Travel coverAll families share stories around the kitchen table about relatives who experienced adventure or misadventure. Few lives, however, are as packed with tales as Capt. J. Holger Christensen, the son of Danish immigrants who was born on an Alaskan sand spit and lived as a seafarer on the west coast. And although most of Christensen’s stories are fairly ordinary, it’s the telling that’s fun in Sea Travels: Memoirs of a 20th Century Master Mariner. The book is an entertaining trip into a forgotten time, as if told by a grandfather to his extended family on a holiday evening.

Born in 1906 in the gold fields of Nome, Christensen and his large family eventually moved to Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound. His father, Niels Christensen, an experienced seaman who shipped aboard one of the last square-riggers in the Age of Sail, purchased a boat to haul cargoes of strawberries from the island’s fields to markets in Seattle. In the years between the world wars, Puget Sound was the major highway for the area, and boats were the most efficient way to move people and goods. One of those goods was black powder and dynamite manufactured at Dupont, a town named for the chemical company that produced the explosives.

In 1928, Niels’ boat, La Blanca, with the author as a crewman, was destroyed when 12 tons of its DuPont cargo blew up near Tacoma. That’s probably the most notable of Christensen’s experiences, except perhaps the day in 1947 when he and his father took President Harry Truman salmon fishing in Puget Sound. But Christensen’s storytelling shines when he talks about the more mundane times as crew or master of several ships. The tales include hell-raising on shore, helping out picketers during the key maritime strike of 1934, and rejecting the advances of ladies of questionable virtue brought aboard by a Russian ship captain.

Christensen’s life is presented by his nephew, Vaughan Sherman, who transcribed hours of oral history tapes into a cohesive and readable story. The book is supplemented by photographs and maps, and it’s a fabulous resource for armchair historians who want to go beyond names, dates, and places to get a sense of what life was like in mid-20th century Washington State. Christensen eventually left the sea as a career, but the sea never left him, and the joy of his memories is something to treasure.

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