Our Island Journey Begins: The Evangel Heads out to Sea!

The Evangel (to the right) gets fuel and supplies at the Standard Oil dock in Kodiak in the spring of 1957

For our condensed version of an Evangel mission trip, we begin in Kodiak to take on supplies. We have just finished hauling a campful of kids to Woody Island, and have about a week before we need to take them home. We are going to head south first. The projectors and Vacation Bible School supplies are loaded, and the pump organ is neatly folded into its battered plywood case, looking like an ancient steamer trunk, and stashed between the door to the "head" and the door to the engine room. The dining table has been folded and hung on its hooks beneath the ceiling hatch in the main cabin, and the breakfast dishes are washed. About midmorning, everything is ready, supplies are stowed, and Dad is back from Donnelley and Atcheson with whatever sundry thing he needed for the skiff. With a throaty roar, the boat comes alive, its aging Lathrop engine ready to plod us forward as soon as the bowlines are stowed. With a quick pull and a deft twist or two, the mooring lines are loose and have been neatly curled into position, where they will unwind without tangling the instant we need them again. Mom sets the little railings on the cook stove, because we expect some rough seas south of Chiniak due to a recent storm, and she doesn't want the teakettle and the soup pot to go flying.

The Evangel underway (from a 16mm movie frame)

I am still too young to help much with the deckhand work, so I content myself by looking out the side windows as the dock, the houses and the canneries of Kodiak fade behind us. Presently I will go up the steep stairs to the pilothouse and Dad will put me on the big shift lever right beside him, so I can look out the tall windows as he steers. In a while, we round the bend at Cape Chiniak and head into open ocean, with Kodiak Island on our right and no land until Hawaii on our left! Dad was right; the waves are still very high out on the open sea. Although the Evangel is a good sea boat (I'd have no basis of comparison though, having spent all my life so far traveling only on it) the boat rolls like a barrel when hit from the side. I am enjoying the bright sunshine and brilliant colors, but soon tire of standing in the pilothouse, and head below to find a toy or a book; we'll be on this journey for many hours to come before we can drop anchor and go ashore in Old Harbor. Sootball, our patient ship's mascot, is a black Cocker Spaniel who knows how to stay out of trouble aboard ship. He is huddled to one side of the doorway at the top of the stairs, chin on paws, eyes on the galley. He'll remain pretty much there for the rest of the trip, unless he decides to sit at Dad's feet (sometimes literally on them) for awhile.

About the photo: Rev. Norman Smith in the galley of the Evangel, early 1950s. Food cupboard to the left, stairs to the right, plates, cups and small cooking utensils stored above. Behind dad is the door to storage and water tank under the bow. This is an early photo, because the galley stove does not yet have the railings needed for heavy seas. The color of the beams is cream, and the walls and cupboards are mint green. There is dark green tile on the floorboards of the deck. Stair trim and the paint on the plywood bins (out of view behind the camera) is chocolate brown. You can tell this was a publicity shot because Dad is wearing a suit, something he rarely did while visiting the villages.

Amidst all the rolling, the time comes for Mom to fix lunch, and my older sister Robin helps. Mom is efficient but pleasantly noisy, and the clatter in the galley means everything will soon be ready. Mom rushes back and forth between cabinets and galley stove in the rolling sea; the secret is to always "walk uphill" (think about it), and remember to hang on to something. Somehow we all get fed; very rarely do any of the Smith crew get seasick, and I never have, but a can of chicken noodle soup and some crackers hedge our bets a bit. Hot tea for them, some of the bluish instant nonfat milk for me, with which I am perfectly content. When I finally have the opportunity to taste fresh whole milk some years from now, it will taste like a vanilla milkshake to me! Mom leaves the dishes at the bottom of the deep galley sink for the time being, until the seas subside a bit. Being young, I feel the need for a nap, and curl up on the mattress/couch next to the galley cupboard, with my back to the side bulkhead, instinctively propping myself up against the pitching boat. The rolling of the boat and the sounds of the prop churning in turbulent waters has been an efficient sleeping potion for me since infancy, and I doze off for awhile.

As often happens when slightly shallower water or a change in the tide puts wave and current at odds, the rolling actually gets worse after we pass Ugak Island and approach Dangerous Cape. It's a good thing that we thought of having lunch earlier, because it is now out of the question. In fact, the cabin is a shambles. All six of the three by four-foot bins that hold the supplies that can quickly convert boat into church have all opened and slid out of their holes, and the railings that held the plywood slabs and the mattress/couch pads have also come loose. My sister Robin, who had been napping on the mat closest to the galley sink, and I both awake in the middle of the cabin floor, suspended like surfers precariously on plywood slabs supported by the ever-shifting bins. Alternately, bright blue sky and dark blue waves appear in the side windows, "up" and "down" have lost any meaning, and even the well-latched food cupboard near the stove threatens to burst open. Once it actually did, spilling a canister of flour and a jar of pancake syrup all over a puppy we were transporting home. Thankfully, this time it holds; when the waves calm down it will be a tricky operation to reorder all the contents so as not to have an instant cascade. Mom loves Tupperware and hates glass jars for obvious reasons! A few waves have actually sloshed against the side windows with enough force to bring in a little water, not nearly enough to be dangerous, but far more than would be comfortable, even if I could move my mattress back to its proper place!

It is too rough now to think of staying down below, and besides, one could easily get his hand pinched between the sliding bins. Sootball the dog has given up all hope of finding anything interesting to do below, and remains glued to the top of the stairs, a rather glum look in his eyes. Robin and I beat a hasty retreat up to the pilothouse, where we all bump and jostle each other harmlessly for the remainder of the rough weather. We have never been in any danger, because the bright blue sky and calm winds mean the storm is over. It is still plenty uncomfortable, made more so now by virtue of the fact that we are sardines in a can in that suddenly small pilothouse. Dad would never have knowingly put us out on the open sea in the face of an active storm, and keeps the radio constantly tuned for the forecasts. But those leftover waves from the last gale will leave us with a lot of cleaning up to do.

A famous "rough spot": the channel between the rocks near Spruce Cape.

One of the unique features of a "mission boat" is that everything is done for the purpose of sharing the good news about Jesus to people who don't know much about him. This means that even (maybe especially) in stormy weather, Dad and Mom might spontaneously burst into song. Several of the deckhands from the Kodiak Baptist Mission who had worked on the Evangel over the years recall this feature of Norman bursting into song at stressful moments. There are two "storm choruses" that we often sing. The first one goes like this:

"With Christ in the vessel I can smile at the storm,

Smile at the storm, smile at the storm,

With Christ in the vessel I can smile at the storm,

Until he takes me home.

Sailing, sailing home, sailing, sailing home!

With Christ in the vessel I can smile at the storm,

Until he takes me home."

The second song is similar:

"Over the sea, over the sea,

Jesus my Savior will pilot me,

Over the sea, over the sea,

Over the stormy sea.

Over and over, like a mighty sea,

Comes the love of Jesus, sweeping over me!"

Such simple, direct and practical faith so freely exhibited by Norman and Joyce is undoubtedly of great interest to many people who previously have known of Christ only through the distant formalities of liturgy, or who have long ago confused local folklore and legend with their official Christian religion. The ceremonies of the local churches are even more difficult to understand at this time because the language of the Orthodox churches in Alaska in the 1950s is not English, but old Russian or Slavonic, which few people still speak. But on with our journey; Dad doesn't sing this time, but I do catch him humming a bit.

Finally, the Evangel chugs into the more protected waters of Sitkalidak Strait. The relative calmness is almost shocking, and so is the mess below. We patch things up while Dad goes through the engine room to check the rpms and engine temperature, which are fine as usual, and goes out the hatch doors to the stern to check on the skiff. It will need some serious baling when we arrive and drop anchor; that is something I know how to do very well. When Dad returns to the helm, he tunes the marine radio to 2512, presses the button on the mike, and waits a split second for the ancient Northern Radio to catch up with its task of transmitting. He waits for the upturn in pitch of the transmitter's whine and says, "This is WB6791 the Evangel calling Old Harbor in the blind..." to inform them of our expected arrival time. Although there is no cannery at Old Harbor, and no formal radio operator there, everyone has marine band receivers and hears our broadcast. Since this is a general announcement, any fishing boat with a transmitter at anchor off Old Harbor could reply but probably won't. Villagers at other sites on the south-end note the announcement and also know to expect us in a few days. One or two fishing boats captained by one of Dad's friends will probably call over a greeting, especially if they're heading into Kodiak and want to know the water conditions. Dad's acclimation into the culture of seafaring around Kodiak is near perfect. He never seems to have any trouble "chewing the fat" with some cannery worker over a cup of coffee or sharing a few words in the proper maritime vernacular with a local fisherman interested in talking about engine repair, navigation tips, weather predictions or something more philosophical. The Evangel, Dad's mode of transportation, might be odd-looking and slow, but his navigational skill and experience are excellent after a few seasons around the islands. We will get there safely.

About the above composite photo: There are no good color photos of the stern-end of the Evangel's cabin (one newsprint photo taken from a Baptist publication is in the article about Kaguyak). This accidental photo shows the door to the head on the left, with Mom helping a very young Kelly wash his hands. The door to the engine room is just out of the frame to the right. In the center of the bulkhead was a map of Kodiak Island and a painting of Warner Sallman's "Christ Our Pilot", which did not show up at all in the photo, so I pasted in a scan of that painting, which meant so much to Norman and Joyce. Below the map was the folding pump organ. I adjusted the photo as best I could, to show the mint green color of the interior paint.

The legendary Woody Island author, the late Yule Chaffin, penned these words about the Evangel and its painting for an article titled "Not By Peaceful Shores Alone," about a very stormy trip we took in the late 1950s:

Adapted from "Not By Peaceful Shores Alone," by Yule Chaffin:

Would they never get to more protected waters, thought Joyce. She pulled her eyes from the frightening waves outside and looked around the lurching ten by fifteen-foot cabin that was their home. Kettles rattled and slid to and fro on the galley stove. Only the iron railing saved them from sailing off across the cabin. Everything was neatly fastened in place, preventing the chaos that would otherwise be caused by the roll and pitch of the boat. The homey cabin with its padded benches and curtained windows seemed to reassure her. Joyce's glance fell on the huge, beautiful picture of Christ on the rear wall of the cabin. Painted by Warner Sallman, who also painted the famous "Head of Christ," this painting was one of her favorites. It was called "Christ Our Pilot," and showed Christ with his hand on the shoulder of a storm-tossed sea captain, who gripped the wheel of his boat. The little boat was being tossed about on dark, stormy seas, much as the Evangel was now being tossed. Under the painting these words were printed:

I do not ask that I may steer my barque by peaceful shores alone,

Nor that I linger, harbor bound, and sail no stormy seas unknown.

I only ask one boon of Thee: be ever in the ship with me!

Go on to Part Two:The Evangel Visits Old Harbor

Written by Timothy Smith, web author. See the About Me page for more information. Always feel free to send me comments, suggestions or corrected information about this article or any of the articles on this site. (Write to: Tanignak@aol.com) This article and website is 2005 Timothy L. Smith, Tanignak Productions, 14282 Tuolumne Court, Fontana, California, 92336 (909) 428 3472. Images unless otherwise listed are from the collection of Rev. Norman L. Smith or the Timothy L. Smith collection. This material may be used for non-commercial purposes, with attribution. Please email me with any specific requests. You are welcome to link to this site.

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