Evangel Island Journey 1: The Evangel Heads out to Sea!

By Timothy Smith (restored/revised 2020)

The Evangel (last boat to the right, at the Standard Oil dock) prepares to set sail from the Kodiak Channel in this photo taken by my brother Noel in 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 to go flying.

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 at 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, until he decides to sit at Dad's feet.

The Evangel gets underway in this colorized snapshot from the 1950’s. The weather looks perfect; no one would have an opportunity to take pictures during a storm!

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.

About the photo: Rev. Norman Smith in the galley of the Evangel, early 1950’s. 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.

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 the boat into a little 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 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. Shallow water, changing tides (and reefs where the spray is visible) can cause a lot of rough water there, even when the wind is not blowing!

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. For us this means that even (maybe especially) in stormy weather, Dad and Mom might spontaneously burst into song. They haven’t forgotten the purpose of all their journeying. 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 one is similar in theme:

“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!”

Dad doesn't sing this time, but I do catch him humming a bit. Such simple, direct and practical faith, so freely exhibited by Norman and Joyce is undoubtedly of interest to 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 difficult to understand at this time because the language of the Orthodox churches in Alaska in the 1950’s is not English, but old Russian or Slavonic, which few people still speak. But on with our journey.

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 rpm’s 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.  

“In the blind” is basically the equivalent of a public announcement, and no response is expected. Although there is no cannery at Old Harbor, and no formal radio operator there, everyone has marine band receivers and hears our little 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 of necessity after a few seasons around the islands. We will get there safely.

About the  composite photo:  There are no good color photos of the stern-end of the Evangel's cabin. 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 to the right. In the center of the bulkhead is a map of Kodiak Island, and a painting of Warner Sallman's "Christ Our Pilot," which did not show up in the photo, so I pasted in a scan of that, which meant so much to Norman and Joyce. The artist met Dad in his last year at seminary, and upon hearing about his Evangel ministry, said he would have used Dad as the model had he known him at the time. I always thought the guy looked like Dad anyway!

An Epilogue from my Mentor:

The legendary Alaskan author from Woody Island, the late Yule Chaffin, was a great friend of our family, and a mentor to me, both in photography and in creative writing. She penned these words about the Evangel and its painting for a magazine article titled “Not By Peaceful Shores Alone,” about a very stormy trip we took in the late 1950’s:

Abridged 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!

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Left to Right: “Timmy” Smith (as she always called me), Yule Chaffin, and my brother Kelly Smith on Woody Island in the late 1990’s. The author of several books about the Kodiak Island area, Yule Chaffin included five of my photos in her 1967 book, Koniag to King Crab. She and her husband Darrell, former station master of the FAA station on Woody Island, let Debbie and me use their beautiful home above the Yuba River  near Grass Valley, California for part of our honeymoon in 1977. She would have loved to read my new novel, Morning for Sokroshera, available here at Tanignak.com

Information from this site can be used for non-commercial purposes with attribution. The text of all the articles on Tanignak.com and TruthTexts.com are copyright 2020 by Timothy L. Smith (see the “About Tanignak.com” link). The photographs are copyright the estate of Rev. Norman L. Smith, or are copyright Timothy L. Smith unless otherwise attributed. Many thanks to the people who have shared their stories and those who have allowed me to use their photographs on Tanignak.com!