Whistle while you work
Conversations with Morey Skaret
This is the ninth in a series of articles on longtime Fauntleroy resident Morey Skaret, who has been plying the waters of Puget Sound—in one kind of craft or another—for more than eight decades. Today’s installment continues Morey’s exploits as a young tugboat operator, a job he got upon returning to Seattle after six months of living ‘on the bum’—that is, as a voluntary vagabond to take the financial load off his West Seattle family during the Great Depression.
From an early age, Morey Skaret seemed destined for a life on the water. “A guy named Elmer Harmon and I went to grade school together and went to West Seattle high school together,” Morey recalls. “They had a manual training shop; Mr Welsh was the head of it. And he says, ‘I hear you guys live by the water, and you made rowboats.’ And we said, ‘Yeah, we made two rowboats.’ He says, ‘How about making a sailboat, in the shop here—an eighteen-footer?’
“So we were young, and dumb—actually, what he was doin’ was makin’ a name for himself,” Morey states. “He was gonna have some of his boys in his woodshop build a sailboat, right in the shop. So Elmer and I started in. It took us a year, and a part of another year, but we finally finished it.”
As luck, or fate, would have it, Morey and his friend would launch their craft in the same place where Morey would later place his own buoy. “We were the first people to put buoys in here,” he says, pointing from his window overlooking Fauntleroy Cove. “My buoy is still out there. Friend of mine has a boat hangin’ on it. You can just see it. Well, we put that sailboat in there,” he says, recalling a day in the sun long ago.
But sailboats were soon replaced by tug boating, a time which supplies Morey with many rich memories. “We slept on the tug,” he recalls. “On towboats, you know, sometimes you tow for three or four days, day and night. You get a long tow from Elwha, sixteen sections, up in the straits. You come way out to Point Wilson and then you turn. Maybe you’re gonna go clear down to Tacoma, or Olympia had a big sawmill.
“So you’re chug-chug-chug. Sometimes when the tide is against you and you got a big tow, you lose ground. All you do with a tug is steer it, so you don’t fall on the beach. There were always tows of logs going back and forth. There were seven sawmills on the Duwamish River inside the city limits, from Spokane Street on up to the city limits above Georgetown, Southpark.
“The last one up there was called Pankrats,” Morey says; adding, a little sheepishly, that “a lot of funny things happened.” Pankrats, for example, “took stolen logs. I’m kind of ashamed of myself when I think of it now,” he admits. “I’d never do it now. But then you had kind of a reckless attitude.
“We would tie up at the West Seattle buoy, maybe eight sections of logs,” Morey says, divulging where his “reckless attitude” led him. “Tie our tug alongside. We’d get out at night, dead of night. Very little lights around. There was a little glare from the city, but it was pretty dark.
“We’d open up the boom chain on one end, and we’d slip one or two good-sized cedar logs out—cedar, the best money for cedar—then we’d lash ’em right next to the tug. Waterman’s in there, drinkin’ that lemon oak, half drunk. And here we are out there. We don’t turn our lights on, we just chug-chug-chug-chugga-chugga-chug-chug.
“We went up the Duwamish River very quietly. And we had those logs lashed right to the side of the boat, so they didn’t hang out; they were just part of the boat. We’d go waaaay up, clear up to Pankrats. And we knew Pankrats ’cause we’d dealt with him before.
“So we pulled into Pankrats. He’s sleeping, drinking. He slept right there at his sawmill. Little gypo sawmill. He said, ‘Whadya got, boys?’ We said, ‘We got two beautiful cedar logs.’ And Pankrats said, ‘Well, I’ll scale ’em. And I’ll give you so much,’ he’d say. And we’d always say, ‘No, we’re gonna take it down to the Washington sawmill. We can get better money down there.’
“‘Well,’ he says, ‘Why worry about that? I’ll give you an extra ten dollars.’ That’s how it worked. So then we took that ten bucks and we went halfway down the river, and we went over to Kellogg Island. And we went in there, and this guy was a bootlegger. Norwegian—a good friend of my dad’s. And we’d have enough money from sellin’ that log to get maybe a quart of whiskey. He didn’t make lemon oak. I don’t know what he made, but it was pretty harsh stuff.”
Morey’s budding entrepreneurial talents weren’t the only skills sharpened by his tug-boating job. The experience also helped sculpt him into a seasoned sailor and skilled seaman, as the following story suggests:
“I had eight sections, probably, in tow,” Morey says, his lucid eyes scanning a looming horizon. “And I was towing from the south to the north. And a fog set in so thick you could hardly see your hand in front.
“We didn’t have any fancy radar, or anything,” he recalls. “We used a whistle. A sharp whistle. It hung right in the pilot house. And you take that whistle, put it around your neck and you blow. The cabin is about as wide as from there to here. Here’s the wheel, here, you steer it by. There’s the bow out there. You put this window down—there’s a window on both sides. And you’re steerin’. You can put two lines on the steering spokes, and it’ll stay steady on that course.
“I’d lean out the window and I’d blow that whistle—sharp whistle—and then I’d count: ‘And one, and two, and three, and four . . .’ And the sound went in, hit the beach, came back. I counted to four—four seconds. So I knew the distance was two seconds. The sound traveled two seconds in and two seconds back, ’cause it echoed off the beach.
“I knew what one second of time meant for distance on the water. So then I quick put down on the chart, so many feet off of this shore. Then I go out on the other window and blow the whistle again. And count it. And figure out the distance away. So I’m eight hundred feet off of that shore, and only six hundred feet off of this shore, so I’d come back a hundred feet in the middle of those—that’s how I came back, right down the middle.
“Sixteen sections of logs, usually we only took eight. But that time I had a long tow, I think. And I came right down Colvos Passage, and I’d whistle my way down in the fog. Because if I made a mistake and ran on the beach, I’d spill those logs. You’d never retrieve all of them.”
Morey’s employer, Clifford Waterman, had three tugs. “He’d send out a couple to help us,” Moreay recalls. “But you were bound to lose a lot of logs—and a lot of respect from Old Man Waterman. And I had never made a bad mistake, so he trusted me. . . .
“. . . . sound goes eleven hundred feet a second!” he exclaims. “There, now I got that. Just came back. I haven’t thought of that in fifty years. Eleven hundred feet a second. I think that’s right. The speed of sound over water.”
Not much escapes Morey’s memory, especially the lifelong lessons he absorbed during the Great Depression, and his stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Next week: An Old School education
In case you missed any in this series here are some links to previous installments: