Courtesy of James Cole
Cole, 82, has illustrated and written a book inspired by the commercial fishing vessels of the Pacific Northwest called, "Drawing on Our History."

Brushing up on history

James Cole paints the evolution of Pacific Northwest commercial fishing vessels

The evolution of the Pacific Northwest's commercial fishing vessels that help make up a $30 billion maritime industry has been depicted through the skillful brush strokes of historian and artist, Jim Cole.

Cole, 82, has illustrated and written a book inspired by the commercial fishing vessels of the Pacific Northwest called, "Drawing on Our History."

The project has been 50 years in the making, starting with Cole’s early love for sketching and painting.

“I wrote the book by meeting people and collecting anecdotal stuff here and there. I took notes of vessels and personal accounts of experiences. The book records an era that is gone,” said Cole.

Though doing most of the research through his life, Cole started writing articles for Fishermen’s News in 2005 that contained much of the content that appears in the book.

Moreover, Cole did illustrations for 30 Marco's fishermen’s calendars. Over the years fishermen used the small calendars, and Cole’s name became well known among the fishing community, which helped when it came to talking with fishermen about their boats and practices.

“The book documents the boats that people have seen for years and when they read the book they say ‘hey that’s how they were made,’ or ‘that’s what they do.’”

The book features 120 designs and pen-and-ink drawings, along with 18 watercolor depictions of the boats, 17 of which were painted Cole’s fluid brush strokes. Cole said that through working with some architects he would get the raw drawings for the boats and then modify them.

Each of the 16 chapter opens with a painted depiction of each vessel type Cole chose to cover. The first chapter depicts the canoes and other vessels used by the Native groups of the Pacific Northwest. From there the book follows the evolution of commercial fishing boats all the way up to freezer longliners launched and delivered in 2013.

A running thread through every painting is the coordinating seabirds that would have been present during the presented time and location. There are three birds in each painting, which Cole said is symbolic of the Trinity.

For example, Cole masterfully shows Northern White Fulmars using acrylic paint in a piece illustrating Tugidak, a 1970 Circa, which is a crab fishing vessel; or in chapter 15 called, Tenders, there is a cannery tender with Blue Herons in the rain in Southeast Alaska.

1950 Troller with murres

Cole designed the book to encompass horizontal laying architectural drawing of the boats. There are models and sketches of the boats discussed, however the language used by Cole is relaxed and makes for easy, fascinating reading, in a conversationally style.

Along with architectural drawings and painting s of the boats, there are compelling first hand accounts and fishing stories told by the “old-timer” fishermen. Cole said that when asking about the their experiences, he never used a tape recorded because he thought that they would hold back the more intimate details of their tales.

Additionally, there is a tribute to the Coastguard, naming heroic rescues and telling the stories of fallen heroes.

Born and raised in Tacoma, Cole told the Ballard News Tribune that his uncle would tell him fishing stories and would always ask for a pencil and paper to give the then
young Cole a better vision of the story.

“I was blessed with an uncle who had traveled the world in sail and steam, and who embellished his sea stories with pencil sketches. ... I developed artistic skills of my own, boats being my favorite subject,” wrote Cole on his website,

Cole’s uncle was a fisherman and owned a steam-powered troller that he bought during WWI.

“We was a wonderful story teller and he’s responsible for my drawing. He’d sketch out a story, and being able to do that well is a craft. And in creating this book I am endeavoring to live up to what he did,” said Cole.

Cole said that in order to support himself while attending school at the University of Washington, he worked in the sawmills in Tacoma and Washington. He started out as a night watchmen at a mill on the Duwamish River, then later worked in the actual mills.

Partially through school and during the Korean War, Cole joined the Coast Guard. During that time he spent time on a rescue vessel stationed in Coos Bay, OR., and Cole said they would tow stranded vessels back to harbor.

“I admired their toughness and ability to work out at sea in the elements. They had a certain aspect about them that drew my attention and respect. ... Fisherman are harvesters the way a farmer harvests corn or apples and with that comes the responsibility of preserving the resource.”

Cole’s first wife Maxine the mother of his four children, died of breast cancer when very young. Jim said that the experience brought him closer to his children. Jim re-married a woman named Myrna whom he met at Marco's, and they remained married until she too died of breast cancer in 2008.

Cole said that he always wanted to write this book but it took a real push from Myrna for him to finish it.

“I had to bear down to get the book down. I have straights of procrastination but you can’t do that - you have to get with the program. I was having trouble and my wife just said ‘Jim I want to finish – you’ve got everything you need, now just finish’ and so I got to work.”

Le Bateau Rouge
Le Bateau Rouge for the Marco's Calendar

Cole lives in Ballard and is semi-retired, working for Elliot Bay Design Group: Naval Architects and Marine Engineers as Chief Estimator.

Since he could not fit all the anecdotal reports and stories in "Drawing on Our History," he plans to author another book that focuses more of the stories of the fishermen.

“I’m a hard copy guy. I like a piece of paper in my hands. ... This is the kind of book I wanted it to be. 10 years from now you’ll be able to pick it up and drop out for a while discovering the history of the boats you probably see every day. “

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