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Setting sail into the past

POULSBO — When Capt. Ed Shields was asked why he wrote his book “Salt of the Sea,” he didn’t hesitate before responding, “I’m the only person who could do this. If I didn’t, no one would and it would be lost.”

The statements are as true as the ocean is deep.

The Northwest native is one of the last of his breed, a captain from the days when the codfish industry boomed, when three-masted ships set sail from local ports for Alaskan waters and thousands of men spent months at a time seeking the bounty of the Pacific Ocean.

Capt. Shields was there.

He is among the elite who can recall with great clarity the feel of the wheel in his hands, the rush of the wind through his hair and the hoarse bark of men’s voices as these huge schooners made their way through the expanses of Puget Sound and beyond.

“Salt of the Sea: The Pacific Coast Cod Fishery and the Last Days of the Sail” weaves the historic tale of the industry as only Capt. Shields can tell it.

The vast majority of the book is written from first-hand accounts and recollections of everything from preparing the vessels for ocean sailing and codfishing to the end of the season and winter work.

Much of the processing for the 600 to 1,000 tons of codfish that were caught each year was done right here in Poulsbo at the Pacific Coast Codfish Company. Captain J.E. Shields, Ed Shields’ father, owned the local plant and provided steady employment to a crew of about 20 during the colder months. The book explains the entire task involved with preparing the codfish for market. It also details the creation of the Scandinavian delicacy lutefisk, a lye-soaked codfish dish which has quite a following in Little Norway.

But the “Salt and the Sea” goes into previously uncharted waters as well, giving reader a one-of-a-kind perspective of an industry from its early days to its eventual decline.

Capt. Shields’ first-hand experience breathes life into the sails of maritime history with numerous photographs of schooners, dories and the men of the sea showing codfishing in its heyday.

“Sailing day for a codfish schooner headed for the deep sea banks of the Bering Sea of Alaska was one of those events a person never forgets,” Shields explains in the book. “This is the climax of the winter’s work of preparation and those days on the Seattle waterfront, loading supplies.”

“If you were a bystander, this day was one long show, the likes of which were sometimes depicted in the most fanciful movies. If you were an old-time crew member, you might be having a last fling or spree, enjoying the last drinks plus a last visit to the ladies uptown,” Shields continues. “However, if you were the captain or owner, it was something else indeed.”

Shields experienced these days from all three posts, as a child spectator, as a working crewman and finally as captain.

“Nobody else could write this. They were not there,” Shields explained, noting that even well-researched books on the subject would no doubt miss the subtleties and finer points of the trade.

Born New Year’s Day 1916, Shields grew up surrounded by the industry. His father was already manager of the Pacific Coast Codfish Co. in Poulsbo, owning and operating a small fleet of schooners at the same time. One might say, Capt. Shields was tied to the sea from birth.

At the age of 18 he made his first trip to the Bering Sea as a codfisherman and worked summers thereafter fishing while furthering his education at the University of Washington in Seattle. By 1940, he earned a Masters degree in engineering from Harvard but never turned his back on the ocean for too long a spell.

In 1950, he took the famous three-masted schooner the C.A. Thayer out on what would prove to be the final commercial fishing venture on a sailboat in the Pacific Ocean. The codfish industry was nearing its end at this point, but Shields’ love for the sea was far from over.

Over the past half century he has spent countless hours on the open water and possibly even more pouring over historical records on the ocean-going men and their vessels. Capt. Shields spent the last six years working on the 238-page book, which not only chronicles the codfish industry in exact detail but includes personal insights and numerous photographs that bring the great days of codfishing to life once again.

“This is the kind of book a lot of people around here might be interested in,” he remarked. “There are a lot of people who live here whose parents and grandparents worked on these boats or at the plant. This is the story of them and what really happened.”

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