The Fate of the Ohana Kai

During the summer of 1977 a group of renegade Greenpeacers placed their hopes of saving the world’s whales in the hands of a rusting former US Navy sub chaser which they painted with rainbows and renamed the Ohana Kai. It was to venture out into the Pacific from its Hawaii port to confront the Soviet whaling fleet and hopefully put an end to the barbaric practice of factory whaling on the high seas. The outcome of the voyage was mixed, but the eventual fate of the Ohana Kai was not a noble one. It limped back to port after locating and boarding the Russian factory ship to pass out leaflets and express their disapproval, then set sail for San Francisco which was to become its final destination. Many dreamers hoped it might one day sail again on its noble mission, but more realistic heads prevailed and it was decided the only graceful way out was to put it up for sale. One day Nancy Jack, as representative of Greenpeace Hawaii charged with disposing of the boat, announced she had found a potential buyer. “He said to meet him at the California Canadian Bank on California street at 3 this afternoon and he will have a certified check for $17,000! What should we do?” Instead of being pleased this news seemed to throw her into a panic. “Well,” I replied calmly, “let’s just show up there at 3 and if he has the money the boat is his.” Indeed the money materialized, in the hands of one Palmer Albertsen, who I would get to know a bit better over the ensuing months. Albertsen claimed to represent a Seattle investor by the name of David Knutsen, who he had convinced that with a bit of sprucing up the Ohana Kai could make him a fortune fishing for king crab in Alaska. Ownership was transferred with the help of the local Panamanian consul, Sr. Mosaquites, and Albertsen moved the boat to an inconspicuous pier underneath the Bay Bridge, where he promptly had it stripped of anything of value. After that the boat slipped loose from its moorings during a storm and floated across the bay to the Berkeley mudfalts, where it was salvaged by a waterfront character who lived on it for years with his family and a group of followers until they were finally evicted and the boat was sold for scrap.

The hapless Mr. Knutsen was just one of a long string of innocents up and down the Pacific coast who had been swindled by Albertsen, a crusty old sea captain who could weave a tall tale and seemed to relish his role as a modern day pirate. He took me out to lunch after the sale was consummated and casually mentioned that the “Moonies”—–followers of the controversial Rev. Sun Myung Moon—had moved big time into the Bay Area fishing business and were making a fortune harvesting black cod with a small fleet of boats. “We could do that too,” he proposed almost casually, as if it really didn’t matter one way or another to him. “We can sell all the black cod we can get to the Chinamen for $1.69 in the round,” Albertsen promised. It all sounded a bit too good to be true. I walked around Fisherman’s Wharf, trying to find the mysterious Moonies rolling in cash, but all I saw were a few blue collar fishermen who probably were barely making ends meet. Nor did I ever find the elusive Chinamen with their wads of cash. But shortly thereafter Albertsen appeared with a rather substantial fishing trawler called the Theo which he brought down from Seattle. It needed a bit of work, so he recruited a crew of stragglers who he found on Fisherman’s wharf and convinced to work for no pay on the promise that they would earn a share of the catch. Everyone would make a fortune when summer came and the Theo sailed to Alaska for the salmon season. In the meantime, we would fish for black cod off the Golden Gate.

Eventually the Theo was ready for its maiden voyage. I had made rough calculations of future riches based on how many pounds of black cod you could squeeze in the Theo’s hold times the price the Chinamen would pay, scribbled on a piece of paper which I showed to my banker who probably thought I was nuts but gave me $10,000 anyway. The irony of a Greenpeacer seeking to profit off the plundering of the oceans was apparently lost on me. I even recruited Ann Yaeger, former Greenpeace bookkeeper, to sign on as the ship’s cook, and we provisioned it with fabulous food, most of which Albertsen absconded with and had his son sell at flea markets. I apparently assumed that no fishing boat ever came back until it was filled with fish, but that assumption was soon put to the test when the Theo limped back into port after several days at sea. I was shocked to see the hold was completely empty, with the exception of one shimmering fish lying on its side on a shelf. The owner of the hofbrau on the pier where the Ohana Kai docked had heard rumors of our endeavors and also showed up to meet us. He was very happy to buy our entire catch. “Let me know if you get any more fish like that one,” he said, trying to sound serious but probably wondering what in the world we are all about.

By now it was obvious something was wrong, and one night shortly thereafter Albertsen fired up the engine of the Theo and slipped out the Golden Gate in the middle of the night headed for Alaska, leaving in his wake another group of dispirited souls who woke up the next morning to find that their dreams of riches had evaporated in Albertsen’s wake.

In the meantime, another drama was unfolding regarding the proceeds from the sale of the Ohana Kai. It had been decided by Greenpeace Hawaii that the $17,000 was destined as partial repayment to Jean Paul Fortom-Gouin, a Bahamian businessman who had put up much of the money for its initial purchase. Jean Paul was a mysterious character with a passion for saving whales. It was he who had helped bring an end to commercial whaling by coming up with the idea of stacking the International Whaling Commission with non-whaling nations and convincing the Panamanian government to hire him as its IWC representative. But Jean Paul was far away engaged in other matters, and signed a power of attorney giving Nancy Jack authority over disposition of the funds. Nancy ensconced herself in an apartment on San Francisco’s South Park and started her own environmental organization called ACE, all purportedly with the approval of Jean Paul. The one achievement I can recall was that she commissioned a large inflatable whale named Cachalot which she took around to show at various festivals. Needless to say, the money soon evaporated and Nancy relocated to Southern California, never to return. Months later I received a phone call from Jean Paul summoning me to meet him at a Fisherman’s Wharf bar. Jean Paul was no nonsense. “Where’s my money,” he demanded. I was flustered. Well, Nancy had spent it. I certainly had not seen a cent of it. Hadn’t he given her a power of attorney? He gave me a pained but knowing look, obviously thinking that Nancy and I had conspired to pull a fast one on him. “Well,” he concluded brusquely, but with an air of resignation, “I’m sure you have everything you need.”

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~ by PB on July 17, 2011.

6 Responses to “The Fate of the Ohana Kai”

  1. I knew that the Ohana Kai ended up on Berkley’s mud flats. But I never knew why. Thanks for the story behind it all. ~Former Greenpeace Volunteer

  2. I and a friend bought a 27 foot fishing boat from Palmer Albertsen, whom we had met at Fishermen’s Teminal, Seattle. The year was 1964. We made only a down payment. Albertsen, a large, heavily muscled guy who ran around with an even larger guy, Willy, Albertsen’s “sparing partner”, sold with the boat a brand new King Salmon gillnet, some Danforth anchors, caulking compound, and 400 yards of longline fishing gear. He and Willy took the boat out of the water and trailered it to the lawn of Gordy Kelso’s cabinet shop, where my friend and I were working, on Nickerson Street, and very skillfully hung the net, making it ready for fishing. We drank a lot of beer, and he told stories on himself, talking about all the brawls that he and Willy had been in, One of the stories he told was of his being investigated, years before, by the Keefaufer Crime Commission for hoarding copper shellcases up in the Aleutians. Another story was of the loss of his Master’s license after a night of drunken brawling somewhere off the Aleutians. When the CG arrived to save his burning freighter, he yelled from a bridge wing, “Let it burn, boys, let it burn! It’s going down! I’m an old country Norwegian and my word is as good as my right arm!”

    My friend and I overheard Albertsen, talking long distance on Gordy’s phone, trying to persuade a California woman, wife of a fisherman who had died only shortly before, that her husband’s Monterey hull boat was really worth much but he would make her a “good” offer.

    And meanwhile, Albertsen persuaded the new, somewhat distrustful but very naive boat owners that we would snag our salmon net on too many deadheads in Puget Sound waters. Better for us green guys that we should take the boat down to Monterey Bay and use the longline fishing gear that came with the boat. We would make a fortune fishing for soup-fin shark. Besides, our contract required that we have boat insurance, which was eight percent in Seattle whereas we could get it for one or two percent at Holliday Harbor in Napa, on the Napa River. He had a friend there who was a yacht broker. And so, with the 27 foot boat sticking 14 feet off the road on a twenty foot trailer, I drove Willy’s ’53 Cadillac and towed the boat, an ansolutely hair-raising trip, especially over Grant’s Pass, down to Napa., Albert and Willy following far behind somewhere in Albertsen’s car. Our first night in San Francisco, trying to get some sleep, in the boat, beside a busy steet, Albertsen showed up very drunk and we were witness to his insane, violent rage, saved from it, though, by the fact that my friend was very large, hiimself, and an ex wrestler.
    In Napa we found that Albertsen’s yacht broker friend knew Albertsen but not one thing about yachts. (Albertsen and Willy had mysteriously disappeared.) Sleeping ont he bank of the Napa River at first, my friend and I were invited inside to sleep with the family who ran the place, and then the father of the family loaned us one of his cars so that my friend and I could go to Sacramento to look for work. We needed the money and we needed boat insurance so that Albertsen wouldn’t be able to repossess. For two weeks my friend and I worked at a sawmill in Yosemite. Then the car loaner, who managed Holliday Harbor, showed up and informed us that Wally Kelso, Gordy’s nephew, facing a shotgun, had been stopped in the act of towing our boat away from the dock. It seems that Albertsen, back in Seattle with Willy, had persuaded Wally that my friend and I were desperate criminals so better for all that he get the boat back.
    My friend and I took the marina manager’s advice and set sail the next day. On the way down the Napa River, a bit drunk, we ran the boat on a bank and bent the propellor shaft. After a night in Fishermen’s Terminal, against the advice of all the fishermen, there, (Looking at our boat, they were certain that we would die at sea), we set sail again, out under the Golden Gate, and soon we were very far offshore, near the Faralones but on the way to Monterey Bay to make our fortune. We made it as far as Half Moon Bay. The vibration of the propellor shaft knocked out a through–hull fitting and we barely made it to shore in time. The boat had too much of a keel on it and gradually became mired in beach sand. Local fishermen and Abalone divers tried to kedge us off the beach after we had made repairs, but what finally settled things for us was a bulldozer operator, who got too helpful and pierced the hull. We took everything off the boat, stored it as Larsen’s Crab Cottage (We never returned), and left the mired boat where it was, in full view of the CG office, and set off on the road toward Route 66.

    Of course, we wouldn’t have made any money even if we had made it
    to Monterey Bay, As the Abalone divers informed us, the King Salmon net was illegal there and no one had fished commercially for soup-fin shark since 1937, when the bottom fell out of the market because of the synthesis of vitamin A.

    And Albertsen? I learned in 1966 that Albertsen had taken poor old Gordy Kelso for all his cabinet shop equipment–many thousands of dollars–, and Gordy went out of business. No word about either Albertsen or Willy, though, who had just vanished. Albertsen had said that he was 68, had “a bad ticker” and just wanted to do a few more favors for people (such as he was doing for us) and then go back to die in the old country.

    In 1970, however, I gillnetted Bristol Bay on Queen Fisheries boat. In the King Salmon bar I mentioned to a very big fisherman that I wanted to buy my own boat. “Just be careful who you buy it from,” he said. “There was a guy here not too long ago, sold boats to five people. It was all the same boat.” I replied innocently, “His name wasn’t Palmer Albertsen, was it?” And that the fisherman turned on his bar stool and said angrily, “It sure as hells was! Do you know where to find him? There’s fishermen up and down the coast looking for that guy with guns!”

    And now, this website and your very interesting story! I have wondered if Albertsen wasn’t involved in transactions with an old WW ! vintage tug that was sold to a group of quite earnest simpletons who were deteermined that they were going to save the world. They called themselves “Infinity”, sold shares to people who sold their homes and land to enlist, and then they set off to colonize the Galapagos. That was maybe before 1978, when for special reasons I went aboard the tug. The Peruvian government took them in tow but the tug eventually wound up on the south side of Union Bay, Seattle. I discovered from left behind papers some of the details of the venture (I took and still have these papers) Along with the papers and the evidence of very scattered minds, was the scattered evidence of what seemed to have been orgies,

    Mike

    • What a tale! The Albertson you describe is definitely the Albertson I knew, although by 1979 (when I met him) he had slowed down a bit. No more drunken brawling. And as he told you years earlier, he also told me he was 68 and had a bad ticker!

  3. Here is just a bit more of the story. I met his wife about the time Albertsen was hanging the gillnet at Gordy Kelso’s, an attractive woman as I recall. Albertsen and Willy told us that at their place in Tacoma they had stored much fishing gear, including new gillnets. My friend and I decided later that they had been stolen. We thought our boat probably had been, too, but the sale and contract went through Oak Smith yacht sales at Fishermen’s Terminal, Seattle, so we were puzzled and uncertain.

    Albertsen seemed to us to give with one hand and take with the other. The con and the taking were obvious. But so was the giving. For example, we much overpaid for the boat, as was explained to us by head-shaking fishermen at Half Moon Bay. But we got a new, fully hung, king salmon net, worth more than the boat, good anchors, much caulking compound, and the longline gear, which was ready fo fish (although my friend and I hadn’t a clue as to just how to fish it). I wonder when his con man life started. Probably after the loss of the Masters license, but he was already, by the standards of the Crime Commission, a criminal.

    It’s a good thing that we lost the boat. Albertsen had promised us that it would easily do 11 knots. It never made over four. It had no compass. My friend and I had installed a boat compass that a girlfriend stole for us in Anchorage. We had no lifejackets. Our pump was a Water Puppy. We had no charts. We set out from Fishermen’s Terminal, San Francisco and with much struggle with the current and waves passed nervously under Golden Gate Bridge without knowing where Monterey Bay was except that it was south, down the coast. Half Moon Bay was a surprise to us and when we went in we almost went over the reef. My friend asked me, when we were off the Faralones (which were a surprise, also), if I was a good swimmer, whether I could swim a long way to shore if the boat went down and we had to swim. He said he could, but I knew I couldn’t. Neither of us, though, knew that the only sharks we were likely to encounter in our adventure were Great Whites.

    And as for Willy, my wife and I encountered him in a line at Costco in Silverdale, Washington, sometime after 1978. We didn’t speak , and it took me a little while to make up my mind that it was Willy. He had the same thumbs, the longest I had ever seen, and he looked at me very uneasily, and so my wife and I got out of the line and made a little tour of the isles to see if Albertsen was there.

  4. One more thing occurred to me. The trailer we took the boat over Grant’s Pass was rented by Albertsen. Wally Kelso told the Holliday Harbor manager that the FBI was looking for my friend and I because we had illegally taken the trailer across state lines!

  5. One could never run out of Albertsen stories. There is a postscript to my tale which I omitted to tell. After he hightailed it out of San Francisco Bay on the Theo, I put out a reward for information concerning his whereabouts and soon learned the Theo had made its way to Juneau, Alaska, where it had stopped for repairs. I hired the law firm of Bogle and Gates (led by the father of Bill Gates) which filed a maritime claim against the vessel on my behalf to recover the money I had advanced. I will never forget my lawyer’s description of Albertsen’s mournful look as he stood by while his beloved boat was seized and sealed by U.S. Marshalls. For all I know, however, Albertsen might have had the last laugh. The Theo was bought at auction by an associate of Albertsen’s whose name I forget. He was a principal in a Seattle firm called Business Factors. What his connection was to Albertsen I could never figure out. He seemed quite a savvy businessman, so I doubt Albertsen was able to put anything over on him, but nevertheless they were drawn together by some mutual interest. In any case, probably the Theo wound up back in the hands of Albertsen, none the worse for the wear. I also filed a lawsuit against him in California, and in a bit of creative lawyering I named David Knutsen, the buyer of the Ohana Kai, as co-defendant. Albertsen had often referred to him as his partner, so for purposes of my legal action I took him at his word. At first they hired a lawyer who attempted a defense, but he soon dropped out, doubtless because he was never paid, and I obtained a default judgment for $90,000. It turned out that Knutsen had owned several properties in Washington state, although it seemed that his fortune was in a state of decline. I was able to place a lien on a piece of waterfront property on one of the islands off the coast from Seattle. I never did see it; perhaps it was a choice parcel, perhaps not. In any case I released my lien after being contacted by one Mark Compton, who had convinced Knutsen to fund a fish cannery in Peru and arranged to sell the waterfront property to raise funds after getting me to agree to settle my claim for the sum of $20,000. I took it because it was basically enough to make me whole. Probably I was one of Albertsen’s few, if only, victims to be able to claim that they got their money back. Of course the fish cannery went bust. That was the end of my involvement, and Albertsen died in 1985 at the age of 66, as I recently learned from a Google search. Incidentally, I also once met his wife, who I believe was Eastern European. She came to San Francisco on one of his visits and the one thing I remember about her was that she was appalled to find out that one of the crew that Albertsen had recruited to man the Theo was an African American.

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