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Remembering Erling Skaar

Erling Skaar, a noted vessel master and technical innovator in North Pacific fisheries and marine operations, and a man known for his strong principles on safety, efficiency, and resource conservation, passed away July 1 at age 80.

Skaar suffered a pair of strokes and died in Salem, Ore. after giving a robust performance at Sangerfest 2023, where he participated as a long-time member of the Norwegian Male Chorus of Seattle.

Skaar grew up in a family of mariners in Stavanger, Norway. Trained as a marine engineer, he worked a few years as a teenager aboard Norwegian freighters and herring vessels, and then emigrated to the United States at age 20 in 1962.

In the U.S., Skaar signed onto a Shell Oil exploration vessel out of Oregon, starting as mess man and rising to chief engineer aboard the 5,000-hp Cal Tide by 1965. At a dance in Seattle, he met Liv Jorgensen, another new immigrant who grew up near Farsund, in the south of Norway. The couple married in 1964. That summer, Skaar tried his hand at fishing salmon in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.

The lure of Alaska fishing took hold. Skaar left Shell in 1967 to fish for king crab aboard the F/V Foremost, then worked aboard a succession of vessels before acquiring his own. Naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1968, Skaar settled in Seattle and joined Ballard’s Norwegian community, an engine of the nation’s rising offshore fishing industry in the North Pacific.

He fished salmon and served as a port engineer at False Pass and Port Moller, then crabbed out of Adak on the Kevleen K. Skaar trawled off Oregon and Washington aboard the Windjammer, and in 1970 he signed on with the Mar-Gun, working under the tutelage of skipper-owner Gunnar Ildhuso.

Spotting greater opportunities ahead, Skaar studied navigation at the Kildall School in Seattle. Upon graduation he signed on as captain of the Silver Dolphin, fishing king crab, tanner crab and blue king crab near Adak and the Pribilofs. Ready to run his own boat, in 1974 Skaar partnered with Ildhuso and New England Fish Company to commission a new Marco crabber, the North American. The 108-footer launched in 1975 with capabilities that were rarely seen at that time.

Skaar raised eyebrows on the waterfront by outfitting the North American with a Caterpillar 399, a 16-cylinder beast generating 1,100 hp, hundreds more than most crabbers of that era. That choice laid the foundation for some of his later innovations to improve the efficiency, safety and reliability of working vessels.

The extra horsepower positioned the vessel for multiple uses: trawling, crabbing, tendering, and research charters. It also enabled Skaar to run at low rpms to save fuel and reduce engine wear. Disenchanted with bottom trawling, Skaar refused multiple opportunities to convert to dragging gear, which he decried over concerns about bycatch and waste.

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