Captain Hofstad – A Veteran of the Alaska Marine Highway and Mentor Who Taught How to Navigate Alaska’s Waters
by Captain Bill Hopkins AMHS (retired)
Many fine captains with incredible backgrounds and experience have sailed with the Alaska Marine Highway System. Sailing under the leadership and mentoring example of Captain Richard Twain Hofstad (1925 – 2003), a man born in Petersburg, Alaska, on the shores of Wrangell Narrows, was unforgettable.
Particularly memorable were our stops on the M/V Tustumena at the Columbia Glacier outside of Valdez, conning the ship carefully among icebergs, searching for leads through the ice, getting close to the face of the massive glacier until the twin peaks of an unnamed mountain, surrounded by the glacier, disappeared from our view behind the wall of ice. Stopping the ship and blowing a long blast on the ship’s whistle with all onboard at the rails while watching the calving icebergs crash thunderously into the sea was spectacular. Large splashes sent rolling waves toward the ship. Steeped in local knowledge, Captain Hofstad gave a lengthy and detailed dissertation over the public address system about the Columbia Glacier.
Possessing a prodigious memory, he made a life-long study of Alaska’s coast, having read U.S. Coast Pilot, volumes 8 and 9 in detail, the journals of Captain James Cook and Captain George Vancouver, and Bancroft’s History of Alaska. More than anything else, he studied nautical charts and took great pleasure in reading about the Harriman Expedition of 1899, an expedition traversing Alaska’s coast, with a special emphasis on the Columbia Glacier. We younger officers stood in wonderment at the depth and variety of our captain’s knowledge.
Piloting the Tustumena through exciting places “off the beaten path,” Hofstad pioneered routes for the Alaska Marine Highway in its earlier years, developing the routes in Prince William Sound with the M/V Chilkat in 1968. He became the original captain of the M/V E.L. Bartlett in 1969.
In 1979, Hofstad pioneered the Westward Run between Kodiak and King Cove along the Alaska Peninsula with the Tustumena, along with his opposite, Captain Andy D. Santos. Santos joined the Tustumena in the latter 1970s as a captain, having served for years as a “crackerjack” chief mate of the coastal tanker, Alaska Standard. Captain Santos knew the routes along the Alaska Peninsula very well, possessing a wealth of Alaskan pilotage knowledge. “Both men (Hofstad and Santos) pushed hard on the idea with the State of Alaska to extend Alaska Marine Highway service to the Alaska Peninsula and eastern Aleutians,” noted Jack V. Johnson, chief mate at the time of these inaugural voyages.
We never did know where Hofstad had learned about the older mail boat routes along the Alaska Peninsula until much later. Our chief mate, Jack V. Johnson, had sailed on those earlier mail boats, both the Garland and the Expansion. He knew all the old courses. Jack Johnson first laid down the track lines on our charts for the Tustumena to follow on her routes along the Alaska Peninsula to Cold Bay. In 1983, the route was extended farther west to the eastern Aleutians to include Cold Bay and Dutch Harbor. In 1993, the ports of Akutan and False Pass were added to the schedule.
“In piloting a ship, never trust anyone but yourself,” cautioned Captain Hofstad. However, he relied heavily upon Johnson’s extensive local knowledge of the old mail boat routes as we traversed through uncharted waters off the Alaska Peninsula. Using preliminary charts showing only soundings along sparse track lines with lots of empty, blank space with no depth soundings in between, Captain Hofstad followed in the wake of the old mail boats, cautiously following their tried and proven routes successfully.
Many years later, accurate surveys were completed, new nautical charts were published, and we could finally see what rock-infested waters we had passed through. Before new charts had been issued, Captain Hofstad piloted our ship with the greatest confidence and without incident. These early voyages were some of the most thrilling times of my career, giving anyone a feeling of doing something truly important, a feeling of excitement, of wide-open spaces, of virgin landscapes, of unlimited freedom, and a feeling of leaving the congested world astern in our wake.
Sailing westward with Captain Hofstad, or with the skillful and knowledgeable Captain Andy Santos, or with the considerably versatile relief master, Captain Robert Smith, on some of the first westward voyages during the late 1970s and early 1980s was an emotional experience unlike any other. We observed with admiration as Captain Smith once docked the Tustumena in King Cove with a seventy-knot head wind. Smith seemed not to mind and showed no stress to the crew. Smith was an excellent captain and a man with steel nerves with whom we always felt safe.
Many who sailed with Captain Hofstad had called him a nautical genius. Often, his mind raced ahead of his speech, pausing long as he collected his thoughts, and then resuming his sentence where he had left off. One had to be patient when listening to him. As a disciple of Rear Admiral David Watson Taylor, one of America’s greatest Naval architects and marine engineers, Captain Hofstad had read deeply and studied extensively Taylor’s engineering classic, Speed and Power of Ships, with a particular emphasis on ship calculations and propulsion.
Hofstad was especially fond of Taylor’s Variation of Efficiency of Propulsion with Variation of Propeller Diameter and Revolutions. When discussing our ship, the Tustumena, Hofstad often began by saying, “According to Admiral Taylor…” Hofstad worked the formulae and calculated the numbers, recommending that the Tustumena’s propellers be trimmed by three inches to reduce propeller cavitation and improve fuel efficiency, sacrificing one-half a knot in speed, from 13.8 knots to 13.3 knots.
Using his weather senses, Hofstad had an uncanny ability to predict accurately the weather and sea conditions. In heavy weather, particularly near the Barren Islands, between Homer and Kodiak, he taught how to tack a ship, changing course to get the best angle on high seas, or avoid making too much heavy freezing spray, exercising patience to wait for the “flat spot” before making a course change with hard-over rudder.
Waking from a sound sleep, he came to the wheelhouse wearing his red bathrobe and slippers while leaning over the chart table, his hands and eyes roving over the chart, plotting his next strategy amid the roar of the wind, in the night blackness, the cold and freezing spray just outside. As a floating engine, a ship can never out run the sea or wind. “You see our course on the chart?” he would ask. “Which way is the weather coming? What will that do to us? What is an easier way?” Then gently suggesting, “Wouldn’t it be easier if we tacked this direction for a while?”
In the early 1980s, we encountered monstrous seas on a sunny day with little wind and in sight of downtown Kodiak. These extraordinary waves were estimated by Captain Hofstad to have been eighty feet high. We had just exited the North Entrance Channel at Hutchinson Reef Buoy #4 and set a course for Marmot Strait, but finding ourselves in a deep trough with tall waves looming high on the starboard side. We could not go directly toward Marmot Strait. Captain Hofstad maintained the conn and turned the Tustumena into the oncoming waves. Though he gave a precise course to steer, he added a qualification, “more or less.” It was all a helmsman could do to steer an approximate course in the general direction our captain wanted to go. Unable to turn around safely and return to Kodiak, the farther out we went, the larger the waves became. We had passengers onboard and vehicles lashed securely to the car deck.
Our good ship struggled mightily, and our good captain read the sea, searching for a flat spot, that is, an area where the sea is without waves lasting long enough to turn the ship around safely and put the sea astern and prevent a violent roll or from being struck broadside by a huge wave and possibly broach. Finally, after a long struggle over mountainous seas, a flat spot emerged, and Captain Hofstad wasted no time, giving the helm order of “hard left rudder!” Our ship answered the helm and came around swiftly. Our stern shook and shuddered and soon the big waves were “abaft the beam.” We fled toward Marmot Strait. Our ship rode easier, but these incredible waves loomed over us when we were at the bottom of a trough and their onrushing speed out paced our ship.
Riding to the top of a wave, our stern descended down the backside and we were looking up at the sky. The next wave would lift the stern high and we were looking down into the depths of the trough. Relative wind was knocking off the tops of the waves with a menacing curl of water as they raced past us toward Afognak Island. We made it safely to Marmot Strait, in the shelter of Marmot Island. There, the sea surged, but the big waves could not reach us. We jogged in a three-mile circle for a number of hours waiting for the seas outside to diminish.
We later found out from the National Weather Service that these waves were generated by a dying Pacific typhoon that made its way into the Gulf of Alaska. When the seas became more manageable, Captain Hofstad directed our course northward toward Tonki Cape and then to the Barren Islands. As we worked our way toward Homer, the large wave train had slowly expended its energy by crashing upon the Afognak Island shore.
Winds can blow to 80 and 100 knots, seas can rise to forty or more feet in the winter, especially in the area of the Barren Islands. Bitter cold with sea smoke rising, winter sailing is surreal, as though floating on a rough surface of cold, smoking liquid nitrogen. It is a time of freezing spray, ice accumulation, roaring wind, large seas, and cold darkness. Often, a storm petrel is observed flying through our search light beam as we try to see large waves before they strike the ship. Many nights, Captain Hofstad slept in his captain’s chair in the wheelhouse, his head rolling with the roll, plunge, and uplift of the ship as though it was a natural thing for him to do.
Just when we thought he might be in a deep sleep in his chair, he would waken and say, “Slow down, the water’s cold and can crack the hull if we’re not careful,” or, “Bring her to the right another twenty degrees.” Crack the hull we did on one memorable voyage near the Barren Islands. Feeling a pronounced shock from below through our feet, we knew something had let go. It was a strange sensation, and as a seaman later described, “The bow just seemed to flutter away before coming back down.”
Upon inspection in the main void tank below the car deck, we discovered that two main longitudinal beams on both port and starboard sides above the keel had broken in half, just below the break of the wheelhouse, ripping to within an inch of the skin of the ship. Limping into Seward for emergency repairs, Captain Hofstad quipped, “I won’t take this ship out of the bay until this is fixed.”
Hofstad had performed several daring rescues. In one example during stormy seas in the Gulf of Alaska, he located the disabled sailboat Wind Dance and was able to radio a position to the Coast Guard for a helicopter rescue. Three days later, he located the sinking F/V Seafarer off the Barren Islands and again relayed their position to the Coast Guard for a successful helicopter rescue. Captain Hofstad received awards on behalf of the Tustumena and her crew from Alaska’s Governor Jay Hammond “for heroic performances in answering the call of not one, but two distressed vessels in mountainous seas off the rugged coast of Alaska on October 14 and 17, 1977.”
Captain Hofstad had gone to sea for most of his life, and had sailed for the U.S Army in Alaska during World War II. His knowledge of the coast of Alaska was encyclopedic, and his skills at ship handling were automatic and natural to him. He counseled aspiring officers, “When your sea time is enough (365 days) for the next license upgrade, take the examination. Don’t let any grass grow under you.” Captain Hofstad advocated Admiral Lord Nelson’s advice:
“Men [and women] treated well serve well.”
Working my way up the ranks, I soon became an unlimited second mate. At that point, Captain Hofstad began training me in ship handling with the Tustumena’s engine order telegraph. Calling me out to the starboard bridge wing unexpectedly one day at Port Lions on Kodiak Island, he said, “Hopkins, come out here.” A bridge wing is where a ship handler stands to see the side of the ship and the closing gap between the ship and the dock, and the location where maneuvering alongside takes place to complete a landing or to depart from a dock. I gulped, and with a hand gesture, he directed me toward the engine order telegraph and docking platform on the starboard bridge wing.
“Stand here,” he said, “You’re going to back the ship out of here.” It was like my father teaching me how to drive a pickup truck with a stick shift and a clutch. We let go our mooring lines and Hofstad gently said, “Put the starboard engine on half astern. Now watch the stern move to port. No need to look forward, remember that most of the ship is aft.” Observing Captain Hofstad, I began to make sense out of his maneuvering strategies and actions.
I learned very quickly from Captain Hofstad that one of the keys of good ship handling was to allow a helmsman to steer the ship almost right up to the dock before stepping out on the bridge wing to complete the task. “A helmsman,” he explained, “can maintain the heading you want, steering closer to the dock a degree or two, or away from the dock a degree or two as directed, and maintain that heading. In this way, a ship handler has firmer control of the vessel.”
Hofstad taught how to “walk a ship sideways” in the wind or current, how to “cushion a landing,” and how to “pivot,” by holding the stern in place and swing the bow around the pivot point, and how to “back a twin-screw ship going astern and control its direction.” Other maneuvers he taught were “spinning the ship around in its own water,” or using a spring line to stop the ship at just the right location on a dock. Captain Hofstad could not only read the sea and the weather, he could make a ship dance.
Written by Captain Bill Hopkins, AMHS Retired. Visit the following link to see Captain Bill Hopkins book, “Alaska Sea Stories” on Amazon.
If you enjoyed “Captain Hofstad” check out “A Captain’s Account of Navigating the Treacherous Passageway of the Wrangell Narrows.”