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By NICK BOWMAN
Daily News Staff Writer
The late John Winther was the man of the hour at the Ketchikan Shipyard on Saturday.
Hundreds gathered to see the christening of the shipyard’s first major project, the Arctic Prowler, and sing the praises of both the man who brought the job to Ketchikan and the men and women who made the first large commercial fishing vessel built in Alaska.
Winther, a longtime fisherman out of Petersburg and a force in the Alaska fishing industry, commissioned the longliner to be built at the shipyard and saw construction begin before his death in October 2012. Winther started the Alaska Longline Company, and the Arctic Prowler is the fourth ship in the company’s fleet, including the Prowler, the Bering Prowler and the Ocean Prowler.
Those who knew Winther considered the towering Arctic Prowler the result of his vision and dreams.
"If you talk about dreams, you can’t help but think about John Winther, who had a dream that this boat would be built in Alaska," said Larry Cotter, president of the Alaska Longline Company, Winther’s fishing outfit.
Cotter said the Arctic Prowler was a testament to faith.
"You’ve got to have — if you’re an Alaskan — you’ve got to have faith," he said. "To build this ship-building facility, Ketchikan had to have faith that somebody was going to build a ship here, and that this place would work.
"John had both a dream and faith."
The Arctic Prowler, he said, also stood as a symbol for Alaskans.
"If you look at this ship, it’s absolutely incredible, isn’t it?" he said. "This is the first large commercial fishing vessel built in Alaska; it is owned by a company that is largely Alaskan; and the name on the ship is Petersburg, Alaska, which is where our headquarters are based.
"I think it speaks to the future of this state. We have faith in this ship. We have faith in this company. We have faith in these resources that I think were well justified."
Former Gov. Frank Murkowski, who served as a U.S. senator for Alaska before becoming governor, was involved in securing federal funds for the construction of the shipyard. While governor, he ordered the move of Alaska Marine Highway System headquarters from Juneau to Ketchikan.
He said he had a "great belief" in the future of the shipyard and talked briefly about his hope that the Alaska Class Ferry project would come to fruition and be built in the yard. Murkowski then thanked the Winther family.
"There’s one person who’s unfortunately not here, and that’s John Winther," Murkowski said. "He was a man of action and a very close friend of mine. He was a great gentleman. He was unflappable."
Murkowski said Winther was proud to be an Alaskan fisherman.
"The significance of what he did ... is evidenced by this fine vessel behind me," he said. "It wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the commitment and vision of John Winther. He believed it could be done right here in Ketchikan, Alaska."
Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said Winther had a talent for pushing people to get the job done, whether it was longlining or heading an organization like the Alaska Industrial Development Authority.
"It was very special to know a leader like that," he said.
Winther’s leadership led others to work to accommodate his growing navy, Stedman said, and "this continued on to this day with what is behind me here now."
Stedman said Winther’s dreams and vision were always ahead of others’.
Winther’s vision was substantial. The Arctic Prowler is 136 feet long and 40 feet wide. The on-board freezers can hold 14,655 cubic feet of fish, or about 735,000 pounds. Its fuel tanks hold 63,496 gallons of diesel that will power two 1,000 horsepower, eight-cylinder engines.
The vessel can catch and process fish on board, and is designed to handle long fishing trips for Alaska sable fish, cod and turbot in the Bering Sea.
The tour of the vessel after the christening gave the public a look at the guts of Alaska’s newest longliner. Ketchikan residents, from lone adults to parents with their children or teachers leading students, remarked on the impressive processing floor and the engine bay — painted white and silver practically floor to ceiling — and its huge power stations and generators.
Old fishing hands had the chance to see the crew’s sleeping quarters. One tourist talked about his days on a longliner when he had to wedge himself into his bunk to sleep so that he wouldn’t be thrown from his bed.
Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell spoke at the christening on Saturday — as did heads of Alaska Ship and Drydock and Vigor Industrial, which operates the state-owned shipyard. Many of Winther’s friends and family attended the christening on Saturday.
Parnell said the Arctic Prowler was "no ordinary vessel."
"It's proof that Alaskans can and will build Alaska-tough boats and ships that can handle our stormy seas," Parnell said. "This is proof that this shipyard is ready to build more Alaska-class, Alaska-tough vessels."
He went on to say that the ship and shipyard is evidence that "Alaskans can grow," and asked how many in the audience remember the days before the shipyard, when the area was a "dirty, muddy dock area."
The Arctic Prowler was christened by Winther’s granddaughter, Stella LeeAnne Asplund. She was with her mother, Theresa, Winther’s daughter.
The vessel is the first large construction project for the shipyard. The facility was preparing to follow the completion of the Arctic Prowler with the Alaska Class Ferry until Parnell took the project back to the drawing board as costs climbed higher and the plans became more complicated.
Plans for a new state ferry are still in the works, and much about the project has yet to be announced.