Seattle Now & Then: The Emancipator, 1958

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN1: The Emancipator in late summer, 1958, prior to its record-breaking catch. Aided by a suspended power block, crew members haul in the last fathoms of seine net. (Ray Faddish)
NOW1: The 65-foot Emancipator, now restored, berthed at Ballard’s Fisherman’s Terminal. It continues life as a tender, transporting over a million pounds of fish last year. Owner/operator Brad Buske stands at the prow. (Jean Sherrard)

Published in The Seattle Times online on March 2, 2023
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on March 5, 2023

Fish stories come true on Ballard’s legendary Emancipator
By Jean Sherrard

Brad Buske’s earliest memories are of old salts playing pinochle, smoking cheroots and telling fish tales on the Everett waterfront, where his family runs a seafood processing company. One story consistently stood out, burnished in the retelling, and Buske knows it by heart.

It happened in the late summer of 1958 after a robust season for sockeye in Puget Sound. Of 400 local purse-seiners vying for salmon, the Emancipator, a sleek 65-foot wooden boat built in 1918 by the Skansi Bros. of Gig Harbor, had finished among the top 10 boats for gross stock. In 28 consecutive days, its nets had hauled in a respectable 25,000 fish.

When the state fish commission offered a last-minute extension, declaring a one-day open season on Fraser River sockeyes, Emancipator owner and skipper Nick Barhanovich jumped at the chance. “And if we happened to catch a few fish,” recalls crew member Ray Fadich in his 2020 book “The Big Run,” that would be “icing on our cake.”

The cover of “The Big Run” (2020) by former crew member Ray Fadich. The book details the dramatic story of the Emancipator’s 1958 bonanza along with colorful portraits of its crew.

Joining a flotilla of competing boats near Point Roberts, the Emancipator initiated a set and then began pulling in its seines. What happened next was mind-boggling.

Within the enclosed circle of nets, Fadich describes a “frenzy” of teeming fish, “water boiling as if in a huge cooking pot.” The delighted crew filled the hold to the brim, then loaded the deck gunnel-deep till the stern was almost awash. Fadich worked the bilge pumps till he was “blue in the face” just to keep the vessel above water.

THEN2: Filling every available deck surface during the big 1958 catch, 80,000 pounds of sockeye salmon threaten to swamp the boat, while crew members attempt to adjust the load. (Ray Faddich)

That single set comprised 15,000 fish — nearly 80,000 pounds. It was one of the largest single catches in Puget Sound history.

Today, Brad Buske, 36, is the proud owner of the Emancipator, which he bought for a dollar in 2013. “By that time, the boat was basically floating dirt,” he says. “We removed the old fish hold with a shovel.”

The Emancipator was transferred to Port Townsend, where Buske says master shipwrights rebuilt it beam by beam: “We did our best to keep all the lines as original as possible, trying to preserve its history — not to create a dead replica but a working boat with a purpose.”

Buske views himself a caretaker of that history. “To me,” he says, “this boat is a living thing. There’s oil and sweat and fish juice soaked into its timbers.”

NOW2: In the 105-year-old wheelhouse, simplicity reigns. The original wheel remains in place, as does the chain connecting it to the flying bridge above and rudder below. In busy Puget Sound, Buske eschews any autopilot mechanisms, preferring to steer the boat manually. (Jean Sherrard)

Several months a year, with Buske at the helm, the Emancipator continues to ply Puget Sound as a tender, transporting fish between the today’s salmon fleet and his family’s cannery, adding salty chapters to its ongoing story.


For our 360 video of this column, narrated by Jean, please join us at  Fisherman’s Terminal.

More photos of the Emancipator included below:

The boat Buske bought for a buck, before reconstruction, in dry dock in Port Townsend.
After months of skilled labor by shipwrights, the Emancipator is much restored and ready to get back to work.

Passing through the Ballard Locks:

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