Flying From Imperial Africa to Alaska with Andrew Smallwood - TAS #20

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This week on The Alaska Show Podcast I speak to Andrew Smallwood, pilot and fisherman/owner of the Celtic Cross seiner in Cordova. Andrew tells me about his childhood on a coffee farm in Kenya, apartheid South Africa, being the personal pilot of the King of Lisotho, coming to Alaska, the events that have had huge impacts on Prince William Sound fisheries, and the future of seining.

Interview Notes

Here with Emily Riedel, Andrew Smallwood and Michelle Hahn in Cordova, Alaska.

Andrew was born in Kenya and grew up on a coffee plantation 100 miles north of Lake Victoria on the Uganda border. He went to boarding school in Nairobi - his parents had a place on the coast where they ran a charter boat to catch sailfish and marlin. His dad was more of a passionate fisherman so it was ironic Andrew ended up running a seiner.

When Andrew was 16 Kenya became independent and his parents didn’t think they could adapt to an independent African country so they went to South Africa where he went to college for a year. His ambition was always to be a pilot. College didn’t go well because his motivation was elsewhere. For a short while he made a living with a traveling ice show. Back then TV was illegal which is how the Apartheid government tried to keep control.

Andrew got a job in Lisotho for the flying doctors service. Most of his work was in epidemic control, bu t he had a brief stint as the King of Lisotho’s personal pilot and got to fly him to conferences and all over. Lesotho is one of the poorest countries in the world and the same honor guard would greet the British Prime Minister in his jet and also the King of Lesotho in his Cessna. Then Andrew lost his British citizenship. It happens to people who are relics of the British Empire as it disintegrates. Some get left behind. Andrew’s mother is American and father is English - so he managed to immigrate at the end of the Vietnam War. It was hard to find a pilot job because the US military just dispatched thousands of pilots into the workforce.

He first got a job in Kenai in Alaska then worked for Mudhole Smith in Cordova. Then he ran an air taxi service and learned the fishermen were making more in a day than he was in a month and became a gillnetter and ultimately owning the Celtic Cross seiner.

Growing up in Kenya was “absolute magic.” He lived on a beautiful farm and could see a hundred miles in any direction. To the north he saw desert and to the south was Lake Victoria. The farm was at 8,000 feet and above that was forest then uplands. The mountain was 14,000 feet. He was sent to an all-white British boarding school and only spoke Swahili until he was 7.

Kenya is a meeting place for many different peoples in Africa - from the Bantu to the people coming down the Nile. You only go a few miles and you’re in a different language area. Nearly all Africans speak at least three languages.

Kenya gaining their independence was the end of a civil war. South Africa was fighting on its northern border as well. Andrew didn’t live in a country without war until he moved to the US. He’s a pacifist.

Andrew’s boarding school was heavily guarded and they had sandbags and sometimes at night there would be gunfire. He and his schoolmates loved that. They had armed guards around the school and there was a huge outbreak of gunfire. One of the armed guards had seen two rifle barrels sticking up in the night and “killed the school wheelbarrow.”

The farm that he grew up on was maize wheat, cattle, sheep and coffee which was the money crop. There were a handful of rhino and there were buffalo and elephants in the summer. There were a series of caves that Andrew wasn’t allowed in because of the Leopards, but of course he spent every minute down there. A friend of his would ride bikes with him into the forest. The forest elephant didn’t bother them. The leopards were obliging - if you got too close in the caves they would cough. As soon as they heard that they would back off.

You didn’t see the elephants often unless it rained hard. His father’s theory was the dripping off the trees drove them mad. His father had a train of porters with him when he marched all over Africa and had to feed them with his rifle - which was so stressful and turned him off hunting because you had to shoot something everyday. If you couldn’t everyone went hungry. Andrew’s dad got the forest above the farm declared a national protected area and stopped everyone from hunting the elephant up there. The whole mountain up there became a national park.

Andrew went back in 1987 - they went up and camped in the forest. A big elephant came close and trumpeted all night and smashed things to keep them up.

When Andrew was a child there were 6 million people with 60,000 Europeans in Kenya. The median family size is 11 - it’s the fastest-growing nation in the world between that and the immigration from less stable countries. Now it’s around 60 million people. The population growth was explosive in just Andrew’s lifetime. What used to be open spaces and subsistence farms is now developed.

Andrew went to college when he was 16. 16 year old college kids don’t tend to prosper. He took all his allowance to get flight time at the local airport. It was exciting and traumatic.

Both Kenya and South Africa were intensely racist societies by design at the time. Despite in Kenya that they were a tiny minority he doesn’t remember people being frightened of black people there. In South Africa they noticed white people were terrified of black people - it was a huge culture shock. Also the language was different. English and Afrikaans were the two languages. Afrikaans was Flemish, it was Dutch. He picked that up too - he had too.

Andrew also got married in South Africa.

He got linked up with the king because he was a decent pilot and had a good rapport with the locals. It was a very challenging place to fly. He flew the King and Prime Minister and most of the government officials. He flew freight half the time and then would have to race home and put on a suit.

For the charter fishermen his dad employed in Kenya - they were great fishermen, and if they liked you you would catch fish if they didn’t like you you would never catch a fish. They were strict muslims so they hated dogs, alcohol, and nudity. If you brought a dog, got drunk, or took your clothes off you wouldn’t catch fish.

One time they had a woman who was sea sick and decided to take her clothes off. Andrew had to deal with that at 12.

One time they had a man come out and he lost his fingers in the jetty.

The fishermen had great eyesight. Andrew swore they could see over the horizon sometimes. They could see detail most couldn’t and infer what was on the horizon.

Michelle thinks fishermen in Alaska have the same thing - over the course of a season your sight gets trained. But over the winter you tend to forget how to handle the boat and the systems and don’t have the eye or control. By the end of the season you get much better.

When Andrew first came to Alaska quite a few fishermen on the flats weren’t literate. They did a lot better than the literate fishermen in his opinion. People who took a stack of books fishing never applied themselves to that extent. Our culture prizes certain type of education that displaces other things you may do.

When he first came here the death toll was quite high. The first season or two he was here he thinks five fishermen drowned at the flats. Michelle thinks for years there were 1-3 people that drowned each year. There were no electronics, no maps, nothing. Now the electronics were so good they can chart the channels even if it’s foggy. If you were off by less than 30 feet back then and you missed the channel the swell might come up behind you and break and tumble you over on a sandbar.

As the year went by the boats have gotten better, the electronics have gotten better, and the fishermen have gotten smarter. When Michelle first came to Cordova people used to fish out of plywood open skiffs with outboards. They would sleep on a seine boat they brought out and anchor inside and those open skiffs would have no electronics. Small cabin skiffs might have a flasher and a compass. It was quite primitive. Now you have a huge aluminum fleet with 200-500k boats.

How has the fisheries in Prince William Sound evolved over the years? It’s been a huge change. In the earthquake of ‘64 the massive razor clam fishery totally went away. That’s how a lot of the people in the town made their money. The Copper River carries more silt than any river in the world except the Amazon. The Delta is continually squishing and growing. When it floods it brings lots of silt up Orca Inlet. Extreme high floods can be 18 feet. When the earthquake happened everything rose 6 feet but everything turned to jello and so all the rocks and clams dropped into the mud.

Cordova used to be a huge mining town. After the oil spill they lost herring and tanner crab fisheries. Even though they lost those fisheries the pink salmon has been spurred on by the hatcheries. But the biggest change was limited entry permits. Before the limited entry system the canneries owned the fish and paid the fishermen, after limited entry the fishermen owned the fish and sold them to the canneries. They used to get 3 cents a fish for pinks. When Andrew arrived Cordova was still desperately poor. With poverty comes many social issues, so the town was a tough little place. It’s changed much for the better over 40 years it’s turned from a hardscrabble community to a great place to live.

Most of the people fishing got their boats working cleaning up the spill. Cordova suddenly went from a fishing community to an oil spill cleanup community. Andrew got a job flying over the cleanup area and counting the boats cleaning up to audit what Exxon was saying in terms of how many boats were cleaning up. Andrew got paid very handsomely for that and got to fight with the COast Guard. They were very obstructive trying to keep them out. The senior levels of the coast guard are in the merchant marine/navy/military sphere so it’s a culture. Exxon was very powerful and could co-opt a government agency. There’s a revolving door between the Coast Guard monitoring the oil industries and then going to work for them.

Why did Andrew stay in Cordova? His wife said after it had been raining for 3 straight weeks that she felt like a fly in a teacup and couldn’t leave. Then Andrew got a job with decent accomodations and it stopped raining. Life in Cordova as a pilot was exciting. They got to fly out to the boats on float planes which they didn’t have in Africa. They had 7 airplanes and 12 pilots when he managed that taxi company. It was dangerous and difficult with huge tidal swings and weather and boats and crowded tidal sloughs. It was beautiful and you never have a boring day. He still finds himself in places he’s never been before after a lifetime of flying here.

In Africa in the desert is was blazing hot day after day. In Alaska when he arrived it was wintery and in a few weeks it was beautiful. The woods are full of life and the birds are out and it’s non-stop activity. Very dynamic.

The people who come to Cordova are those who want to get off the beaten path.

The boat the Celtic Cross is a Tuna Trawler than fished between Honolulu and Midway. It was seized by the US Government during a drug bust. It was then used as a sting boat and filled with cameras. It was kept in San Diego mostly and kept in good condition. Andrew bought it in Seattle and converted it into a Seiner and designed the rigging and hydraulics for three-manning. At that time capacity was everything 8 years ago. He was looking for a cheap way to pack lots and lots of fish. It’s not quite so important anymore, but it’s still an advantage. He also wanted a boat that was nice to live on and nice to fish so he took a lot of effort making it comfortable and setting it up for crew to come back. There’s a shower in the focsle - no one sleeps there - everyone sleeps in a real room.

In SOuth Africa Andrew’s wife was part of a student organization that fought hard against the Apartheid government. The student leaders were starting to be murdered and she was rising through the ranks. They left because if they stayed it would’ve been bad. He hired an all-woman crew because in his experience women don’t have to be looked after. Male crew require constant psychological attention. Egos need to be managed. You hire pilots for your air taxi service and men want to fly low and show off their girlfriends.

The seine fishery has had a strong 15 years. Andrew and Michelle are concerned about global warming. The creek by their place was so hot it cooked the fish and then a fungus grew all over. The streams used to be fed by meltwater from the mountains, now they’re fed by rainwater. If it doesn’t rain the streams are empty. The snow melts too fast and doesn’t build up enough.

But in Andrew’s experience the people who commit to the fishery do well over the long-term. Those who are opportunistic and jump in and out tend to not do well. You have to be able to set money aside on big years and control your costs.

The fishing season is 2 ½ months and it costs about $100k to run the boat for that time. Michelle says she noticed they both put safety first then fun then finding fish then money. What they noticed over time is people who put money first and think they will get rich quick or acquire enormous debt can’t have fun. They are so intent on making it they will actually miss fishing opportunities and blow sets and make bad choices. Stress also leads to mistreating crew and people don’t come back and it whittles away at their effectiveness.

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