Centennial Story 64: Charles R. (Bob) Hitz 1957 – 1960 (BS Zoology, 1958)

I arrived at the UW College of Fisheries in 1957 after an inadvertent break in my education, courtesy of Uncle Sam. The Korean draft had finally caught up with me after three years of study at Washington State College (WSC) in Pullman.  Following my tour of duty, I returned to WSC, finished my 4th year, but was still a few credits shy of my BS in Zoology.  That summer, I married my fiancée and moved to Seattle, enrolling in the UW in order to finish my degree, and hopefully attend dental school.

Between dental school rejections and difficulties in finding a job in zoology, it was a depressing time. It seemed that no one was interested in hiring me—until I visited the Montlake Lab of the US Fish and Wildlife Service near the Seattle Yacht Club. There, I was told that I could start as a biologist as long as I took a few basic fisheries classes at the UW College of Fisheries (COF) next door. Finally! I thought that this sounded great!  The classes I had taken at WSC in Pullman weren’t wasted, and I was already registered at the UW. So I decided to skip any idea of being a dentist and began my career as a marine biologist in the fall of 1957, cheerfully enrolled in the classes I needed to get my BS, as well as fisheries classes I needed for employment.

At that time, Dayton Lee Alverson was a guest speaker at the UW.  He had just returned from a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization conference on world fishing methods in Hamburg, Germany. He spoke to us about the distant water trawling fleets of the world and the major changes that were beginning to occur with the introduction of stern trawler-factory ships, which would make the current side trawlers obsolete.  These new stern trawlers were large vessels, and their different methods of handling nets and catches fascinated me.  I had no idea what a dramatic effect this speaker would have on me and my future, or what consequences the foreign stern trawlers were to have on the US fisheries, but he certainly held my attention. I was convinced that studying fisheries was absolutely the right choice.

Bob aboard the ship John N. Cobb
Bob in 1960 when he was first hired aboard the Exploratory R/V John N. Cobb.

The UW classes and the atmosphere at the school, were so engaging that instead of trying to find a job, I decided to apply to graduate school in marine biology. I was accepted and began my studies.  I had the GI Bill, my wife was employed in Seattle, and we had an apartment within walking distance of the COF.  My project was to determine the spawning times of brown and copper rockfish species in Puget Sound. During my graduate work my advisor Allan DeLacy arranged for me to meet Lee Alverson, the guest speaker who had so inspired me and who was the new director of a branch of the US Fish and Wildlife Service called Exploratory Fishing. I was to talk to him regarding his knowledge of rockfish. Alverson told me that the rockfish were a large group in the Pacific and he believed that one species, the Pacific ocean perch (POP), would dominate the commercial catch in the future.

During our discussion I had taken copious notes, and as I got up to leave Alverson came out from behind his desk and snatched my notebook! He then retreated back to his desk and began reading my notes, proceeding to announce that I had “misspelled this fish and that fish” and on and on and on. To say that I was embarrassed was an understatement. I had always been a very poor speller and to have it so clearly and publicly pointed out was my worst nightmare. I finally left with a red face and my corrected notebook, feeling that if ever there was a job with Exploratory Fishing I would most likely be the last to be considered.

I collected samples for my research with the use of the COF Trawler R/V Commando.  During 1959 and 1960, we made 22 day trips. There were three of us on the vessel: Tom Oswald Jr., the skipper; Olaf Rockness, the engineer deckhand; and me, a greenhorn deckhand and student. It was a wonderful experience. We would leave early in the morning and would pass through the Chittenden Locks into Puget Sound heading for Port Orchard.  While we crossed, Olaf would go into the galley to fix us a wonderful breakfast of biscuits, bacon and eggs. After breakfast, we would head through Agate Passage under the bridge located on the northwest side of Bainbridge Island, into a body of water called Port Orchard.  This area had a smooth bottom where trawls made in the past had yielded rockfish.

Since there were only three of us on the vessel, I had to run one of the winches when we set and retrieved the trawl. There was a brake wheel on each winch, which could be unscrewed 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 when I unscrewed it completely and it sprang out of the socket. I said “Is this OK?” and he said many bad words. How he refitted the screw into the socket is still a mystery to me, but he did and I never unscrewed it completely again.

Recently when I was going through old logs of the Commando I found an entry that I had written on May 3, 1960 for trip #6017.  It brought back a wave of memories because that had been my first encounter with the open waters of the Pacific Ocean. Before I left on that trip, I had wondered if I would become seasick out on the open ocean.  There was no class about seasickness given at the COF, but there was considerable talk.

Seasickness is strange: some people get it and others don’t.  I felt that I probably wouldn’t because of the hurricane I had gone through on my way back from France at the conclusion of my army tour.  We were on a 623 foot troopship, and the seas had been monstrous.  I was proud that I never got seasick.  So in 1960, when I and two other graduate students had the opportunity to accompany the Commando crew for a week’s trip to the open ocean, I felt I would be fine.  We left the College on May 2, and by dinnertime, we were off Dungeness Spit and heading out the Straits of Juan De Fuca. A strong westerly wind was blowing directly down the straits and the vessel bucked into them. Since I was in the pilothouse when dinner was called, I went back to the galley and sat down to eat, but after a bite or two of spaghetti, I had to rush out the galley door to the deck—I was seasick. The motion of the Commando in that chop really got to me!

We put into Neah Bay that night and proceeded offshore the next morning and thankfully, I was able to control the seasickness at that point.  We made four hauls the first day out, each about two hours long along the so-called bread line, as the fishermen call it, just south of Cape Flattery. After the fourth haul was up at 8 pm, we secured everything and shut down for the night. Everyone went to bed, I in the upper bunk on the starboard side of the house.

As I lay in the bunk, I heard a noise that mystified me, a swishing sound. The Commando was very quiet with everyone in his bunk, the main engine as well as the auxiliary shut down and the little power needed was supplied by a bank of batteries. The noise came from outside, first from one side and then from the other as the vessel was moved by the gentle everlasting swell present on the open coast. It finally dawned on me that it was the sound of stabilizer cables as they moved through the water. I had watched them being set when we left Neah Bay for the open ocean. The poles stored in the upright position while in enclosed waters are let out to about 45 degrees on each side. From each pole a cable was attached, with a weight at the end, which is submerged below the waterline. It is designed to help reduce the roll of the vessel when at sea.

Once I figured out what the noise was, I should have gone to sleep because it was so soothing, but I kept wondering where we were drifting as we had seen light on the beach before we went to bed. I worried about the drift and it kept me awake most of the night, while Tom and the others slept soundly.

Morning came and everyone got up and went into the galley, where we waited for the coffee to perk. Looking out the door, it seemed to me as though we hadn’t drifted during the night and, puzzled, I mentioned that “We didn’t move much last night.” No one said a word. The coffee continued perking, and as they were drinking it, I looked out again and said, “That spot on shore is in the same place as it was last night, so why didn’t we drift? We should have.” No one said a word. When Tom and Olaf had finished their coffee, Tom told Olaf “Start up the engine and then haul the anchor,” and that’s when finally I realized that we had anchored all night in the open ocean.  I had thought that no one in their right mind would ever anchor in the open ocean. If I had known that it was common practice I’d have slept a lot better. Talk about a greenhorn…

My research was completed but one requirement to convert French text into English was holding me back. When I was overseas in France I had taken a French class, which I passed and used for my undergraduate language requirement. But when I was in graduate school, I took the French exam at least five times without passing.  I was frustrated as it was the one thing I lacked to graduate.  In 1959, Lee Alverson became the director of the Exploratory and Gear Research unit in Seattle. When he offered me a job in 1960, I accepted! This was the same man who corrected the spelling in my notebook – I couldn’t believe that he offered me the job.

It’s too bad that I never received an MS degree, but the experience and education that I received during the years at UW were what got me this exceptional job at such a unique time in the industry. The next six years were exciting: dipping into virgin stocks of POP which lived along the top of the continental slope, and the development of the Cobb midwater trawl, which brought in huge catches of Pacific hake in midwater over the continental shelf. Then in 1966 while on the R/V John N. Cobb, mapping out a huge school of hake just outside of where I had spent a sleepless night aboard the R/V Commando, we observed the massive invasion of the Russian fleet that worked up to 3 miles from the coast of Washington and Oregon, systematically removing “our” fish from “our” waters. That year changed the American fishing industry. The Russian fleet had the massive stern trawlers that Lee Alverson talked about when he was a guest speaker when I first came to the College of Fisheries.

In 1970, the Exploratory Fishing branch was abolished when NOAA was formed, and I was transferred with the Cobb to the newly formed NOAA national fleet that was located at the Pacific Marine Center (PMC) on Lake Union. And once again my time at the UW and the close relationship between the College of Fisheries and the US Fisheries, gave me the experience I needed to become part of the industry during this time of great growth and change.

The next 18 years at PMC were interesting since the fleet had two systems of managing the bridge of their ships.  The fisheries vessels were commanded by civilian Master and Mates who remained on the vessel for their entire career, whereas the survey ships were commanded by commissioned officers who were rotated every two years.  I was assigned to the operation center at PMC and worked between these two groups.

During this period I developed a cottage business from my hobby of drawing profiles of ships.  We called it H&H Studios and ran it out of our home.  We developed award plaques featuring my ship drawings mainly of the Coast Guard fleet.  I continued with H&H Studios after I retired from PMC, eventually selling the business in 2006 to a company which retained the name and is still in business.

Since selling H&H Studios, I’ve spent my time collecting the cruise records of the Exploratory Fishing and Gear Research Base in Seattle during its existence between 1950 and 1970.  The Seattle National Archives has accepted them as a special collection and I have volunteered to help organize them before they are opened to the public.  I’m grateful that this body of work will be available to all who wish to understand this amazing time in our Northwest waters.

Bob in 2018 at his home in Stanwood.
Bob in 2018 at his home in Stanwood.
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