Captain Payne - The Greatest Shipmaster of the Alaska Marine Highway
Captain Payne - "What a ride! What a captain!"
by Captain Bill Hopkins AMHS (retired)
Captain Harold Payne (1921 – 2002) was, in my opinion, the greatest shipmaster the Alaska Marine Highway System has ever produced. Payne was a kind man, and some took advantage of his good nature, but very little ever escaped his watchful eyes. Captain Payne held his judgments of people to himself, saying only, “Leopards never change their spots.” Our captain was a benign dictator, sometimes taking his meals with the crew, never speaking down in condescension, but horizontally in two-way speech, yet, there was no doubt who was in command. Unspoken, but observed in Captain Payne’s character, “new skippers, and old ones, should keep their egos in check.”
Captain Harold Payne at ease on the lifejacket box on the port bridge wing of the M/V Malaspina chatting with Captain Doug Johnson (center) and Captain John Lyness (far left). June 1989. Using his leadership style and considerable nautical skills for the behalf of others and for the good of his ship, Payne was deeply respected among our fleet. This fine man was the captain who had rescued sixty-six passengers and four injured crewmembers from the burning Norwegian cruise ship Meteor on the early morning of May 22, 1971. The Meteor was returning from an Alaskan cruise and only seven hours away from its final destination in Vancouver, British Columbia. While southbound off Texada Island, some ten miles north of Sisters Island Light in the Strait of Georgia, British Columbia, a mattress fire inside the forward crew quarters expanded killing thirty-three crewmembers. For some reason, these crewmembers were trapped and could not escape to the upper decks. Captain Payne with his chief mate, Walter Jackinsky of Ninilchik, Alaska, and the crew of the northbound Malaspina went to the Meteor’s aid. Smoke was pouring from the portholes of the forward crew quarters. Desperate crewmembers had their heads poking outside the portholes trying to find fresh air. Captain Payne had Jackinsky prepare and lower away the Malaspina lifeboats. Within two hours of receiving the Mayday call from the Meteor, the Malaspina had rescued the survivors from the burning ship; many still in their nightgowns, and then brought them to safety in Vancouver. Both Captain Payne and Walter Jackinsky received citations from the U.S. Maritime Administration for “the highest traditions of the U.S. Merchant Marine.” A quiet, but thoroughly competent, honorable man with penetrating eyes, no one could handle a ship better with such grace and ease as Harold Payne in all weathers and current conditions. As a child, before the creation of the Washington State Ferry System, Payne had been raised onboard his father’s private sector ferryboat in Puget Sound on the Keystone to Port Townsend route. In 1943, at the age of twenty-two, Payne earned an unlimited third mate ocean license. Like Captain Hofstad [see Captain Hofstad - A Mentor Who Taught How to Navigate Alaska's Waters], Payne had sailed between Seattle and Alaska for the U.S. Army during World War II. Payne was all business and liked to tell us that he was “old school.” After the war, Payne was captain of the tug Vesta Miller working log tows out of Seattle and towing cargo barges between Seattle, Valdez, Seward and Anchorage. “The tugs were a challenge for me,” he humbly noted. “I remember one time with a tandem tow we went around East Chugach Island and Cape Elizabeth (western tip of the Kenai Peninsula) to enter Cook Inlet, but it was too rough for us and we ended up behind East Amatuli Island in the Barren Islands and jogged there for two days.” "[Captain Payne] was the first captain to deliver a barge through the ice to Anchorage," recalled Captain Charles L. Bates. "He would take a barge from Seattle to Nikiski and then work his way through the ice to Anchorage. Before this, Anchorage was considered a port only in the ice free months. Captain Payne told me the first trip when they tied up, they couldn't get the barge alongside because there was too much ice between the dock and the barge. The longshoremen had to ride the crane to work the cargo. He was the ice specialist for Foss. Then SeaLand came in with Keith Collar as pilot and the ships started making it a regular year round service." When the Alaska Marine Highway System began in 1963, Payne signed on as a second mate. Our larger ships began sailing the Skagway to Seattle route in 1968 and Payne received command of his beloved Malaspina.
Captain Payne in black tie standing behind the Malaspina's sign board with fellow captains and deck officers as we made pilotage trips in Bellingham Bay, WA in June 1989. Ship handling was second nature to him, and as his chief mate, he began teaching me important skills, saying, “Ninety percent of all ship handling is in one’s approach to a dock. If it is a bad approach, you will work hard to recover and dock the vessel. If the approach is good, it will be less work and easier on the engines with fewer engine commands.” Payne was respectful of his engines, and of the marine engineers below in the engine room who monitored and maintained them. Payne taught to “view the current as your friend, let it do a lot of the work in ship handling,” adding, “knowing your ship’s maneuvering capabilities in combination with the current can be accomplished very easily.” Payne taught to “feel” the ship, that is, feel it losing momentum through your feet, or feel the ship’s engines through your fingertips when touching the engine controls. “A ship travels faster at nighttime than a ship handler thinks,” he often cautioned. Payne taught to “know the state of the tides and currents at all times and observe any current streams swirling around dock fenders and pilings.” Payne taught to “gauge the wind” by watching the Alaska state flag flying above the wheelhouse, or by observing the exhaust issuing from the stack, or by reading the surface of the water. Very little intimidated Captain Payne, though he confessed, “I did back away from Skagway a couple of times when the wind was blowing so hard (70 or 80 mph) I thought my eyeballs would blow out.” Payne taught situational awareness and never letting one’s guard down at any time.
I am allowed to dock Captain Payne's beloved M/V Malaspina at Skagway, Alaska under his watchful eyes. c. 1986. With any good captain, there is an element of luck. Standing with him one stormy night on the port bridge wing while approaching southbound to our dock in Ketchikan, southeast wind blowing 50 knots, rain beating furiously against our faces, a barge moored at the adjacent shipyard dock stood in the way of our approach. Payne came in wide to avoid the barge all the while slowing the Malaspina down. Strong wind set the ship rapidly toward the obstructive barge, and Payne pushed down on the ship’s throttles to speed up and clear the barge. Malaspina’s stern missed striking the barge by only two feet. Payne turned toward me with a smile, and with his right hand raised and his index and middle fingers crossed, he said, “Some nights are like this.” Where Captain Hofstad had taught the basics of ship handling, Captain Payne came along and polished me in ship handling, like smoothing a rough stone, giving me plenty of opportunities to undock and dock his vessel while under his competent and observant eyes. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another…” Proverbs 27:17 No detail was too big or too small for him. Anxious to use the bow thruster when maneuvering, Captain Payne could read my mind, placing his hand on the bow thruster control to block my impulse saying, “Not yet.” Payne believed in using a bow thruster sparingly. When backing away from a dock, Payne would not have his Malaspina shaking and shuddering when backing astern. With him, everything was smooth, easy, and graceful. A shaking and shuddering Malaspina would incur his immediate displeasure. I began to earn his trust slowly, attempting to handle his ship as he wished it to be handled, good approaches with fewer engine commands. Soon, he would simply say, “Bill, take it into Skagway. I’ll be below having lunch in the officer’s mess room.” Captain Payne was a master of Wrangell Narrows and Peril Strait. I say this humbly, for none was better. It is from him that I began to learn “the numbers” for dealing with these difficult waterways. Payne’s methods became a part of my thought processes. No longer having to expend mental energy on the numbers, they became a part of my procedural memory, taking me to a higher level of experience. Sailing under Captain Payne’s leadership and instruction was the best thing that could have happened to me as a young deck officer with the Alaska Marine Highway System. Payne taught Wrangell Narrows by standing off to one side, yet close to the engine controls, usually behind my right shoulder, as I conned his vessel through “the Ditch.” I can still hear his soothing voice in my mind speaking softly, saying, “Now,” to indicate that it was the time to put the rudder over ten or fifteen degrees and come to the next course. If the ship was swinging too slowly for his taste, he would say, “Giver her more rudder,” or, if the ship was swinging too fast, “Easy on the rudder,” or, “Check her up.” “Give her more snoose,” or “Kick her up a notch,” Payne would say, both phrases meaning to increase the propeller pitch to increase power, or, “Drop her down a peg,” or “Ease her back a little,” both phrases meaning to reduce the propeller pitch to decrease power. By doing this, I learned the timing for making critical course changes, how much rudder to use and how much power to apply. A day finally came when I was conning his beautiful Malaspina through Wrangell Narrows when he fell asleep in his captain’s chair. The able seaman on the helm, steering the ship, brought the captain’s slumber to my attention noting, “The Old Man really does trust you now.” I doubted that he was truly asleep, but that he was testing me.
Captain Payne's favorite spot was to sit on the lifejacket box near Fire Station No. 4 on the M/V Malaspina. This photo is in Lutak Inlet, Haines, Alaska. Captain Hofstad once advised, “A mate can learn more from a bad captain than a good captain because you’ll see the things you shouldn’t do.” There is comforting truth to this statement. However, being a student of good shipmasters serves anyone well. In due course, all observing officers who fall into a good captain’s orbit are placed on solid foundations. Honored by the State of Alaska in 1989, Captain Harold Payne became the Commodore of the Alaska Marine Highway fleet before retiring in 1990. Captain Hofstad was similarly honored a few years later.
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."
Wonderful memories shared of a great mariner.. “The best” As I have read so much of Him and Others that followed Under him, yes he was a true master, as Like captain Richard Hofstad, They All have Great stories and some are so true makes a person question if these things Can be Possible……Well with these Men, Yes All true.. take it like the Bible…. Thank you for a well written Account of these men and i hope to continue reading more..
You’re very welcome, Jim. Many of us were fortunate to fall into their orbit. ???
Yup, you captured Captain Payne, Bill.
You’re very welcome, Harvey. Thank you!
Your’re very welcome, Mark. You have a natural maritime talent and being a mentor for you was a pleasure.
Well written Capt. Hopkins, thanks for putting histories of the AMHS into words.
You’re very welcome, Bruce. Always great sailing with you.
I loved steering for him in the narrows and peril sttaits it was a privilege I will always remember. The way he gave rudder commands made steering so easy it was fun. I can still remember him saying “check-eeer & steady.”
Captain! Sailing with you on Kennicott gives me those same feelings towards you as you have towards Captain Payne and Captain Hofstad.
Your stories of those men were incredible and as a young officer it inspired and shaped me.
Thank you for your mentoring and the tribute to there mentoring of you.
Fair winds and following seas.
Dear Cheryl: I have a distant memory of this event. These kinds of things do happen. Captain Payne was indeed one of the kindest people one could meet and had the ability to place himself in other people’s shoes. I was truly blessed to sail with him and learn from him. Thank you for your wonderful recollection. Captain Bill Hopkins
Thank you, Kris! I have many fine memories of sailing with the Alaska Marine Highway. It was one big adventure.
Dear Captain Hopkins;
Lovely to read your tribute to Captain Payne…did you happen to ever hear about the following…?
On September 24th or 25th of 1981 after four months travelling the Northwest living in my van, starting from Fort St. John, BC and meandering through the Yukon & Alaska with my dog (Chelsea) my friend Liz and her cat (Matthew), we were travelling down through the stunning inside passage commencing our journey east, back home to Quebec. We were aboard the M/V Malaspina and as usual when it docked, this time in Wrangle, I went ashore to explore and take Chelsea for a walk. This time however, I had no inkling that Captain Payne was about to become my rescuer; I’d missed the ship!
I heard the Malaspina’s horn sound a few times so hastened back to the dock and as we were running down towards the ship, I could see it slowly pulling away. I couldn’t believe my eyes. And worse, the dock workers told me the next one wasn’t for a couple of days.
I helplessly looked up to see other passengers leaning over the deck rails snapping our photos and as I scanned the crowd I spotted a fellow we’d met a few weeks before in Dawson City. I shouted up to him, “Beau, tell Liz I missed the boat!” I had the keys to my van, parked in the hull, in my knapsack, a very empty wallet and not much more. As I turned away to try figure out what I was going to do, there was a commotion behind me and all of a sudden the dock workers sprang into action and the ship started to reverse! The workers, having already told me ships don’t usually back up in situations like this, were as surprised as I was and amid the flurry I looked up and spotted Captain Payne. I shouted up to him, “Thank-youuuuu!” He looked down at me and responded, “That’s OK, you owe me…” The ship re-docked, the passengers applauded, the door opened, the ramp was lowered and Chelsea and I thankfully boarded.
Later that night, I was writing in my journal and saw Captain Payne walk into the lounge. I approached him, introduced myself and thanked him the best I could. During our brief conversation, in which he said, “…if it hadn’t been for my dog…” I asked him to sign my journal. He kindly did and then my wonderful soft spoken rescuer went on his way.
Years later when I came across Captain Payne’s obituary on the internet I truly felt saddened. It was only then that I learned of his many other kind and heroic deeds. I was moved to write to his daughter to share yet another story about her father’s kindness and she wrote back to thank me.
I have told this story so many times through the years; it truly was one of the highlights of my very lucky life. And I am very pleased to see that Captain Payne’s amazing legacy lives on for others in writings such as yours.
Laval, Quebec Canada
Thak you, Kris! I have many fine memories of sailing with the Alaska Marine Highway. It was one big adventure.
I humbly say thank you, Captain Montez. We had good mentors.
Thanks for sharing your adventures aboard the Highway, I look forward to your next installment!
Fine writing, Sir! ??
You’re most welcome, Linda. It was a pleasure to write a small remembrance of your incredible father. Bill Hopkins
You were a close second old friend!
Captain Payne was my father and I was so proud of him in all his accomplishments. He was a kind and loving father and is so deeply missed. I wish he could have read this wonderful tribute. Thank you Captain William Hopkins.
You are very welcome, Bill.
Captain Payne was my Father. He was a wonderful person and a loving Father. I loved hearing of his stories and started a scrap book of his accomplisments early on that quickly filled the album. I was so proud of him. He was kind and I miss him so much. I wish he could have read this. Thank you for writing this Captain Hopkins.
As knowing the Payne girls thank you for sharing your story. We knew Harold as a very kind man. Thanks again
You’re most welcome, LeRoy. We had good years sailing with Captain Payne.
Very well written Captain Hopkins. I have had the honor of sailing under his command both as AB and Bosun. I’m not sure if there’s enough words available to describe this man…Thank you for sharing this.