Charles R. (Bob) Hitz Bob’s Posting 25 Nov 12, 2014
The John N. Cobb’s external design was based on the large seiners that worked the California coast during the winter harvesting sardine and in the summer, Alaska, to capture herring. Both fisheries took large catches to reduction plants that converted the fish to oil and fishmeal. While the fisheries lasted the demand for large seiners kept the yards busy in Tacoma, WA., one of the main areas where they were built, but by 1950 the sardine and herring fisheries had collapsed and the building boom for these seiners was over. To save the smaller local Alaskan salmon seiners from the large seiners invading their fisheries, the federal government established the Alaskan Limit law which restricted vessels over 58 feet from seining salmon. That law is still in effect today. After the war steel replaced wood for hull construction, so the Cobb is one of the last wooden vessels to be built in this large seiner class.
The internal design differed from commercial seiners since she was designed for research and did not have to retain the catch, only record it, but she could fish any or all commercial fishing gear and was a stable safe platform. W.C. Nickum and Sons of Seattle produced the specifications for the vessel, which became available in February, 1949 and specs were put out for bid. Western Boat Building Company in Tacoma, Washington was selected as the builder
Through the years I’ve wondered about the builder of the Cobb. I hadn’t paid much attention to the shipyards of Tacoma, but was aware of the names of the companies that built the modern tuna seiners and crab boats coming out of the area during the 60s.
When the John N. Cobb was decommissioned at the NOAA facilities at Sand Point in Seattle on August 13, 2008 after more than 50 years of service to the country, at the ceremony there were at least two rows of people who had come up from Tacoma. One of the men got up and introduced himself as Allen Petrich, whose grandfather built the John N. Cobb, and he noted that the people with him were either related to Allen or had worked for years at the Western Boat Building Company. I had the opportunity to meet Allen after the ceremony and he remembered the vessel well and one of his cousins said that he remembers playing in the shavings below the boat while it was being built. Allen was gracious enough to fill me in on the history of the shipyard. His grandfather Martin A. Petrich, along with Joe Martinac, founded the Western Boat Building Company in 1916 and it became one of a number of companies building commercial fishing vessels in Tacoma.
In1950 there were four major shipyards producing commercial fishing vessels; Western Boat Building Co., Joe Martinac and Sons, Tacoma Boat, and Martinolic. Only Joe Martinac and Sons survived until this year, 2014, when it closed its doors. They all produced fishing vessels, herring and sardine seiners and tuna clippers during the years that wood was preferred for vessel construction and then in the 60’s, when steel was the choice of material. Joe Martinac and Tacoma Boat became famous for their tuna seiners and Martinolic for king crabbers. Western Boat Building got out of building commercial fishing vessels after the fire that destroyed the yard in August, 1950 where the Cobb had been launched six months earlier. It was the largest enclosed ship yard on the Pacific Coast where a vessel 250 feet long could be built. In 1948, the Mary E Petrich, a 150 foot tuna clipper, was launched from this yard, the largest and fastest tuna clipper built at that time. The company took a different direction, pleasure yachts with their famous Western Fairliner. The John N Cobb’s 16’ work boat in the davits on the starboard side was an inboard Fairline vessel supplied by Western Boat.
Like many shipyards, Western Boat gave each vessel built a hull number and the John N. Cobb was #192. The U.S. Fish and Wild Life Service had their own numbering system and for this vessel it was F.W.S. 1601.
The contract called for photographs to be taken during the building of the vessel and Kenneth G. Ollar of Tacoma, WA was the photographer. The first one was of the keel laying Aug 10, 1949, the second was taken Oct.10 when the hull planking started to appear, the third was on Nov. 21 when the house was started, and the fourth was taken when she was launched on Jan. 16, 1950 and slid into the city waterway below Tacoma’s 11th Street Bridge. The vessel was accepted by the U.S. government on February 13, 1950 and she was commissioned at the University of Washington Oceanography Dock in Portage Bay, Seattle on February 18, 1950. It took about five months to build the Cobb from keel laying to launching.
This vessel is unique. She is all wood, the building material at the time. She has graceful lines, with a high bow and a large flat afterdeck and the house forward. The design is based on the Pacific coast herring/sardine seiner, which H.C. Hanson referred to as a medium or large combination vessel. She was considered large for her day, with a total length of 93 feet overall, beam of 26 feet and draft of 11 feet. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research base finally had their dedicated research vessel, which was to serve the government for 58 years.