R/V COMMANDO – College of Fisheries – Puget Sound


Commando, College of Fisheries in the Background                Hitz Photo

Commando, College of Fisheries in the Background
Hitz Photo

Charles R. (Bob) Hitz       Bob’s Posting #30         Mar. 17, 2015

Recently I was contacted by Jason Lim, a University of Washington (U/W) graduate student who is doing research on his Master’s thesis. The objective of the research is to gather information about the historical distribution of bottomfish in Puget Sound, with an emphasis on rare rockfish like yelloweye, canary and boccaccio. Most of my work was done offshore with Exploratory Fishing, but when I was at the UW School of Fisheries between 1958 and 1960 I was working on my graduate thesis on two species of rockfish, brown and copper, taken in Port Orchard within Puget Sound. He was still interested in interviewing me, so we made plans to meet at the UW Fisheries Science Building on Feb. 24, 2015.

Jason Lim, U/W graduate studentHitz Photo

Jason Lim, U/W graduate student Hitz Photo

It’s difficult to recall what occurred 57 years ago, but there are occasions that are etched in one’s memory, one of which concerns the UW College’s R/V Commando’s Fishing Log. My major professor Dr. DeLacy had control of the schedule and one of his requirements was that a fish log had to be kept for each haul made. He made arrangements for me to use the Commando as a tool to collect my samples and it was my responsibility to fill out the log for those hauls I made. The only time that I remember him to be upset was when he reviewed the log of my first couple of tows and found the scientific names either misspelled or missing. I had to go back and correct each one and had to use the basic reference we used, “Clemens and Wilby Fishes of the Pacific Coast of Canada” (1) to make sure of the spelling of the scientific name. After that my log entrees and species were correct and scientific names were included. I wanted to review the logs before I met Jason to help me recall what else was in the catch, as all I remembered were the brown and copper rockfish which were the target species.

Returning through the Locks ,Hitz Photo

Returning through the Locks ,Hitz Photo

Thinking back, it was a fantastic opportunity for me to use the Commando to collect my samples. The vessel had an overall length of 67 feet and was built in 1944 for the commercial fishing industry in Seattle. It had fished in the halibut longline fishery for 11 years. In 1955 it was sold to the UW College of Fisheries, replacing their R/V Oncorhynchus. She was rigged for trawling and was my first introduction to a commercial fishing vessel.

Trawler, dragger, otter trawler, are all terms to define a vessel that tows a net along the

: Commando Profile (Click to Enlarge)                Hitz Drawing

: Commando Profile (Click to Enlarge) Hitz Drawing

bottom. The net is held open by floats attached to the head rope, and has a weighted foot rope which skims the bottom. It is spread by the trawl doors which act as kites in the water, each shearing to an opposite side of the boat, holding open the net. Once the doors are on the bottom the net is towed for about an hour.

Trips on the Commando were a full day. During 1959 and 1960 we made a total of 22 trips. There were three of us on the vessel: Tom Oswald Jr. the skipper, Olaf Rockness, the engineer deckhand and myself, a greenhorn deckhand and student. It was a wonderful experience and I still remember parts of it.

Trawl Winch with Iron BarHitz photo

Trawl Winch with Iron Bar Hitz photo

We would depart from the College of Fisheries’ dock located just west of the Montlake Cut across from the Seattle Yacht Club, casting off the lines in the early morning and heading out blowing the whistle to open the University Bridge. After that we followed the ship canal to the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, where we waited to enter the locks and once there waited again for the after lock door to close behind us and then became a tourist attraction as the water was being pumped out, lowering the Commando. Once the water reached the level of Puget Sound, the outer doors would be opened and the vessel would move out into Shilshole Bay and the salt water. We’d head across Puget Sound for Port Orchard and, while we crossed, Olaf would go into the galley to fix us breakfast on the galley stove.

It’s been over 50 years since I was served breakfast in the Commando’s galley and I still remember Olaf’s biscuits, how good they were with bacon and eggs.

After breakfast we headed through Agate Passage under the bridge located on the northwest side of Bainbridge Island. It opened into a body of water called Port Orchard, which had a smooth bottom where trawls made in the past yielded rockfish in their catch. We would set the trawl and tow it for about an hour.

Rockfish Ovaries ,Yellow OrangeHitz Photo

Rockfish Ovaries ,Yellow Orange Hitz Photo

Since there were only 3 of us on the vessel, I had to run one of the winches when we set and retrieved the trawl. There was a brake handle on each winch, a wheel that you turned to release the brake. When letting out the gear Olaf kept saying, “Make sure the brake is off and it’s not dragging,” so I would keep unscrewing it to make sure it wasn’t dragging until one day I unscrewed it completely and it sprang out of the socket. I said “Is this OK?” and he said a lot of bad words. How he refitted the screw into the socket is a mystery to me but he did, and I never unscrewed it completely again. Retrieving the trawl was an interesting procedure as the cable came in and had to be laid flat in layers so that all the cable could be contained on the drum. Each winch operator had an iron bar that he used to guide the cable onto the drum in even layers. I also had to take the single line from the boom, which was used to lift the catch aboard. I was told never to let go of it until it was fastened or passed to another crewman, because when the vessel was outside and was rolling, a lost hook was dangerous, I had an opportunity to see that aboard the Cobb a few years later and it was scary.

 Rockfish Ovaries Gray-Eyed LarvaeHitz Photo

Rockfish Ovaries Gray-Eyed Larvae Hitz Photo

Once the net was brought back aboard and the catch sorted, the rockfish were set aside and on the way back to the U/W I measured each for total length and opened the body cavity to determine its sex and what stage the females were in. Rockfish are ovoviparous, giving live birth to their young. I had no idea that their eggs were fertilized internally although I had filleted many rockfish before, just had never opened their body cavities to check the eggs. I found that the ovaries changed color as the embryos grew as the yoke of each egg was used up. From yellow to orange to gray as the larvae gained eyes and the yolk sack disappeared. Once the yolk was gone, the largest individual brown rockfish gave birth to 300,000 larvae and the copper produced 600,000. The births occurred in late spring for both (2).

Commando’s Log Book (Click to Enlarge)Hitz Photo

Commando’s Log Book (Click to Enlarge) Hitz Photo

Jason arrived when I was reviewing the logs and we discussed his thesis and went through the questions and charts that he brought. One of his questions was whether I had ever seen a bocaccio in the inside waters and I said I couldn’t remember ever seeing one. Toward the end of the interview we were looking through the old log books, and on tow 6002 made on Feb. 3, 1960 we found Sebastodes auriculatus, S. caurinus, and S. paucispinis. The first two I recognized as the brown and copper rockfish respectively, but didn’t recognized the latter. Jason got out his smart phone, looked up the scientific name and said “You won’t believe this, but it is the bocaccio.” There was a question mark by it – why the question? I would assume I was questioning the identification, but in Clemens and Wilby’s book it is the first rockfish to be separated out so I should have ID it. We also found a log for a May trip off the Washington coast in which we took bocaccio in the catch, with no question mark.

My thesis was about completed and one item that was holding me back was the requirement of converting French text into English, so when I was overseas in France I took a class which I passed for my undergraduate requirement. But when I was in graduate school at U/W I took the exam five times without passing. I was becoming frustrated, so when Lee Alverson became the director of the Exploratory and Gear Research unit in Seattle and offered me a job in 1960, I took it with the idea I could finish my degree while working for him. I never did. I hope I have contributed to Jason’s research.

  • Clemens, W. A., Wilby G.V. (1961) Fishes of the Pacific Coast of Canada,   Fisheries Research Board of Canada, Bulletin No. 68 (2nd Edition), 1961, 443 pp.
  • DeLacy, Allan C., Charles R. Hitz, and Robert L. Dryfoos, (1964), Maturation, Gestation, and Birth of Rockfish (Sebastodes) from Washington and Adjacent Waters. Fisheries Research Papers, Vol. 2, No. 3, Washington Department of Fisheries, March, 1964.




About finleyc

I'm a writer and a historian of science. I'm interested in the intersection of science and policy in the oceans, and especially around fishing.
This entry was posted in boat building, Dayton Lee Alverson, Environmental History, Exploratory Fishing Base, Fishing, History of Science, History of Technology, Maritime History, Pacific Fishing History Project, World History and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to R/V COMMANDO – College of Fisheries – Puget Sound

  1. joswold says:

    I happened upon your article and was so pleased to read about your research experience on the Commando. My father Tom Oswold Jr. skippered that vessel and and another the Alaska for over 40 yrs at the UW. It’s great to hear that you enjoyed your experience on the Commando and it was a lasting memory for you. It was my Dad’s career.
    Jan Oswold


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s