Cordova Gansey Project: #11 A Conclusion - Where Postlude becomes Prelude...Swan LK243

Cordova Gansey Project: #11 A Conclusion - Where Postlude becomes Prelude...Swan LK243

I invite you to journey with me for a moment back to the chapter of our story which took place on the fishing vessel Swan LK 243. This was the boat I boarded for the "Fishing for Ganseys" class with Stella Ruhe. If you didn’t get a chance to read this segment, or haven’t read the full long story, you may want to read some of the previous chapters in order to better understand the context of this current post.


On this day, back in October 2014, I had stepped on to what I would later come to know as “Swan LK243”.  When I was on the boat that day, I was engulfed in the whole knitting experience and though interested, I didn’t really hear much about the boat, other than the fact that she was a herring fishing boat off the coast of the Shetland Islands, and that those days were long gone.

So today, it is here that we pick up the story. Last spring, when I first started writing out this long tale, I found myself digging…digging for photos, digging for information, digging for details. At the time when it came to the Swan LK243, all I had really wanted was a photo, perhaps of her in her earlier years, but what I discovered was so much more, for the Swan LK243 had a story to share, with lessons woven through her history.

Let's go back to the year 1905, Lerwick, The Shetland Islands.  With help from the Swan Trust I share with you a bit of her story.

The Swan's appearance was in the midst of the peak of the Scottish herring fishery in the early years of the 20th century.

Every summer hundreds of sailing vessels packed into Lerwick harbour and other ports around the coastline. Those of us along the coast of Alaska know well the flooding of boats and crew during the summer months, so I can imagine what it must have been like, the town swelling with the influx and intense activity of the boats and fish packing crews .

At that time two types of vessels dominated the fishery; the Fifies, and the Zulus. These massive timber boats were unique to the Scottish fleet, and were the ultimate development in Scottish herring sail boats. The Fifie Swan LK243 was built and launched in 1900 at Hay and Company’s yard in Lerwick. I am assuming the LK stood for Lerwick, her home port, and at a length of 67 feet, a bit longer than our seine boat, the Orion.


The swan under sail, c.1902 

She was regarded as “one of the finest fishing boats afloat in the North of Scotland”.  In her early days the Swan was operated from Lerwick and was used for longline fishing for white fish in the spring, and driftnet herring fishing from May to September. She was taken over by a crew from the island of Whalsay, still in the Shetland Islands, in 1905, and was worked from there for almost half a century. I thought it interesting how the boat was designed so that each mast could be lowered down and set to the side to make way as they pulled in the net.


As I read about this, I thought about the reality of bringing in the net by hand. In these present times of hydraulics and power blocks, I can remember vividly the few times when I was on the boat and getting the net in the wheel or having the hydraulics fail, making it necessary to hand pull the seine back on the boat, an exhausting and thankfully infrequent experience. No pictures of those kinds of days, too busy working quickly and often in the midst of keeping the boat from drifting into the rocks. Certainly not a preferred method for getting the net on board, it is hard to imagine this activity on a regular basis. I can see their need for a strong and ample crew. Even so, I am sure they had a rhythm and routine, just as we do now, and the sounds and the motions created its own form of music as net went out and net came in.

I would love to have watched them making a set just to see how it was accomplished with the sails up and the sails coming down, nets going out, nets coming in. A window in time, these sail driven fishing boats, and even though the Swan was the pride of the fleet,  like so many great creations in the midst of progress, her days were numbered, as steam drifters were already beginning to push sail boats out of business.

By 1935 the Swan was one of only five herring sail boats left in Shetland. She had an engine fitted, and was given a new lease on life. When the seine net fishing was introduced in the late 1940s, Swan participated in yet another chapter of Shetland's fishing history. Finally, in the 1950s the grand old lady was retired, and in 1960, she was towed to Grimsby, England to be converted to a houseboat. In 1982 she ended up even farther south in  Hartlepool, eastern England, where she lay neglected, sinking two or three times due to lack of care.

Eventually, the Swan was spotted as a classic vessel by boat enthusiast Keith Parkes in the late 1980's, despite the fact that she lay submerged with only her masts showing.  From the thousands of Fifies that once fished around Shetland, the Swan was now the last.  As I read this, all I could think about was our fishery and the fragility of it, and I imagined what if our boat was the last seine boat left sometime, somewhere in the future, many miles south,  found submerged, with just the crows nest peeking out from the water, a haunting and humbling thought.

Keith, the man who had spotted the Swan,  bought her in 1989 and began restoration, planning to sail her back to Lerwick when completed. The restoration, however, was too time consuming, and he offered her up for sale. His advertisement in ‘The Shetland Times’ newspaper caught the attention of Shetland navigation teacher, Tom Moncrieff.

Swan in the restoration process 1990

Tom, a keen yachtsman and expert on all aspects of Shetland's maritime heritage, wrote a letter to ‘The Shetland Times’ to encourage funding the return and restoration of the Swan to be used as a living museum and sail training vessel. He ended his letter stating,

"There will never be another Swan".

It was true.

The Swan Steering Group was formed, negotiations began, and it was decided to buy the vessel and bring her back. In 1991 a crew traveled to Hartlepool, England, where she was made seaworthy enough to undertake the long journey north to Shetland. Radar, echo sounder and navigational systems were all also installed to prepare for the trip – instruments which hadn’t been dreamed of when the Swan was fishing.

The trip was difficult; the engine had to be kept running as every time it stopped it filled with water due to a cracked liner. The boat’s nails were found later to be in much worse condition than previously thought, but with the crew’s skill and perseverance she continued on. After a three day journey, the fatigued Swan made it home and docked in Lerwick after an absence of more than 30 years.

Work is underway, c. 1992

The Swan Trust was formed in 1990 and the painstaking restoration process took 6 years to complete. Local craftsmen with specialist knowledge, those that saw and appreciated her value, worked to faithfully to restore her to her former glory. On 11th May 1996 the Swan proudly spread her wings. She was relaunched in Lerwick harbor, almost 96 years exactly since she first took to the water.


Oh my...Such a story from a boat so full of life in the midst of the peak of the herring boom to an aged and weary boat left to deteriorate, only to be rescued and brought back to life years later. I had no idea when I first sat in the galley of this boat the extent of her incredible story of survival, the days of her fishing life long gone, her life underwater sunk, alone and abandoned, and then her emergence and new life of purpose, despite her obsolescence. 

At the time I didn't know where the stirring thoughts of the day would take me and that the gansey wearing men who once worked aboard would somehow come home with me, their patterned jerseys imprinted on my heart and mind. My sheepish grin and tightened lips held a smile within that I could hardly contain, and I could feel somehow an inner explosion of thoughts and ideas, that day, there on the Swan.

When I hear and reflect now on all she went through, I think of all the ups and downs of this life of my own, all tangled up in fishing and life's challenges and realities. In light of this, the Swan is a kindred spirit and now a faraway friend. How wonderful that there were those who saw the value in this broken down vessel.  There have been times where I too have felt like a sunken ship, barely afloat, and I am grateful for those who have seen the value in me, and restored my hope amid the trials, tribulations and stormy seas of life, and reminded me of renewed purposes  despite changing times.


Ok. Now I have to share one last thing with you, coupled with a closing story. Last spring, as I was reading the history of the Swan LK243, I came across a sound clip on the Swan Trust page with music that was inspired by this dear old wooden boat.  

First go to the link below and start to listen to what she has to say about this piece of music. Then, come back to this page, let the music of the Swan be the backdrop as you imagine yourself sailing on the last fishing Fifie from Shetland while reading the rest of this last bit of the long story.


the last bit...

Time waits for no one. Like the swift river of tradition, so flows the elements of this lifetime. I am in the midst of my own Swan LK, as just as I was beginning to write this part of the blog story last spring, my husband informed me that after almost fifty years of working as a fisherman he wanted to pursue other adventures while he was still able. And so, this past summer my husband did not go fishing. He was not at the helm as skipper of his boat, the F/V Orion, and at least for now, his time for fishing appears to have come to a close, and our son Nate who has fished alongside him for several years has taken over the task. Truthfully,  I had not anticipated what an emotional experience this would be for me. I knew the time was coming, but the thought of it always seemed somewhere distant, off on the horizon.

After he told me, as I listened to the Swan's song and went back to my writing, for some reason, all the years of the interlacings of my personal relationships, shop, and fishing came to mind, and I was catapulted back in time.

I thought of how this seasonal fishing life and the ebbs and flows of the salmon runs interwoven with running The Net Loft are all I have ever known for many many years.

As told in this long story, from the day of our wedding on the back deck of the Tawnia Lynn, our summer days have been marked with fish openings and closures, interspersed with knitting nights and gatherings of fish moms and friends at the shop, beside the pond, and around the campfire….my own little mesh of fishing and knitting. So many stories...we all have them.

As I continued to listen to the melody of the Swan my soul filled as I thought of the life this boat must have had, and reflect on my own fishing times way back when I used to plunge off the back deck of that old wooden boat as we fished off Point Elrington.

I scan the days in my mind and think of when the children and I would fly out on a float plane to see Bob and the crew, and those special times of waking up in the wheelhouse and watching the fish in the bunt being brought up over the rail on a misty morning, and times of sitting alongside Bob in the wheelhouse working on a knitting project watching the other boats fish as we waited our turn in line, the radios lit up and alight with the voices of fishing chatter. And though as a knitter I can still say, “just one more row”, for him, it seems, like there is no longer “just one more set”.

A sinking heart.


This is the postlude.



But take heart, there is a prelude..

In all honesty, perhaps it is because I struggle with a sense of my own obsolescence, and as I read this story I felt a kinship to dear Swan LK243, and especially that time she spent underwater with barely a mast showing.   And then I think of the beloved knit stitch, and how it endures, loop into loop, row after row, whether it be with a straight or circular, sheath, belt or cable, the stitch is still the same. Loop into loop, row after row. There is something very comforting about that to me. The fisher lassies well knew the rhythm of the needles, and in that there is no distance or time between us.

Somehow, in a similar sort of way, the Swan, and the fisherfolk of long ago are our fishermen sisters and brothers, regardless of the time and space that divides us.

The nets

The salty seas

The jellyfish

The knitters

The ganseys

The fish

The families

The friends

and the good part is that in the faces of the children in the photo above, there is to be found many of the fishermen and women of today.  As I have mentioned before, our son Nate as well as our daughter Nelly and her husband Michael are just a few of the many young fisher men and women stepping in beside or in place of those that came before them.   They have a fresh outlook and ideas as well as a renewed care and concern for the waters that provide their living and lifestyle, and they will be the ones I will keep knitting for.

And the river flows on...



so there you go...that is the long story

and so

Whether you are a fisherman

Friend of a fisherman

Family of fishermen

Like fish

Like knitting

Come follow the fish to Cordova, Alaska and follow along with us on our knitting/fishing adventure as we breathe new life and meaning into the heart and history of the fisherman’s gansey and gear in our little fishing village, and hopefully throughout the coastal communities of Alaska, honoring the proud heritage of those who came before us.

Its not just a then,

It’s a now.

And though sometimes it feels like it may be an ending, actually, we are just getting started, …and by passing things along, a bit of the old is retained in the new, and a bit of us can go on, even when we may not be able to. 


When I think of my gansey for our son Nate, a bit of me, and my husband Bob who sits beside me as I knit, will be stitched into every stitch. Out to sea and off and away, it makes me glad to think that in this sweater,  a part of both of us will watch the fish come over the bar, the dolphins swim alongside the bow, the jumpers leap, the schools swim into the net, the friends raft up together, attend the campfires on the beach, direct the anchors being set and pulled up in the early hours, climb the ladder to the crows nest, shift the levers of the hydraulics, and attend to all that bring the fish into the fish hold and off to the world.


"follow the fish, follow the patterns"

come along if you will...

thanks for listening to the story that brought this project to life.

We hope you will join us as we venture into the days ahead and the tales yet to be told.
..where the trail will take us
and where the river may flow....


Photos and story of the Swan LK 243 with kind permission from Swan Trust.  I sincerely thank you.

For more information on the Cordova Gansey Project

For information on our upcoming event: FisherFolk

Photos and story with kind permission from Swan Trust
For more tales on the Herring Fishery I am reading an interesting account, Herring Tales by Donald Murray, I am working on having copies available at the shop

More  on the Swan LK 243 tune

FisherFolk North East Scotland

For those interested in the herring boats of Shetland, the Swan was a Fifie, and the other boats were Zulus, here is a similar tale of the last Zulu, a boat named "Kate", LK126, although she is yet to find her way back home to Lerwick

Final Painting of Cordova, Alaska by David Rosenthal

For information on current Copper River/Prince William Sound Fisheries




Back to blog


Thanks Penny. Hope you get a chance to come see the Moray Firth exhibit in the museum. It is inspiring. Thanks for all the years of Net Lofting with us.


How beautifully written Dotty! Although not participating in this weeks’ incredible Gansey Project that you have put together in our little fishing town, what your net loft had given me over the years is a lifelong love of knitting. From my first purchase of some of your “New Zealand” yarn from the old Net Loft, many skeins have run through my fingers making me feel connected with the women that have provided warmth and nurturing to their fishing families through the centuries! As I curl up on this Rainy day with soft yarn at my fingers I thank you for what you have brought to me.


thanks Shoo for your sweet presence that is interwoven so gracefully through the years


Holy moly Dotty !!!
This blog o yours is so dang inspiring and thorough and heartfelt, it ought be developed into a book !!!!
I know, easy for me to say;-)
Suffice to say, you are a thorough inspiration, my sweet friend.
I love that we share so much of our pasts together xxooss

Shoo shoo

Thank you Sabine and Linda for your comments and sharing.
Linda, I have talked to my daughter Nelly and if Nate and the Orion crew are off fishing, and her boat the Pelican is in town while you are here, she is happy to give a tour and have a knitting and tea down on the boat in the harbor for you and anyone else interested. She is knitter as well. We will keep you posted.


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