Student recalls harrowing disaster in Alaskan
He lived to tell the tale and to design
a unique, award-winning chaise lounge
By P.J. VANPOOL
David Sellers may well have been born fifty years late. Talking to the young man who completed his B.E.D. at Texas A&M in May 2002 is a little like reading a chapter out of Kerouac’s “On the Road,” or possibly “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” mixed with shades of Jack London. At 24, he was already a nationally honored furniture designer, but his love for design springs out of a much deeper appreciation for the beauty and simplicity of a life lived as a rugged, unencumbered adventure. Seen through the eyes of a college town, Sellers is one of those guys we’ve all heard about, the storied friend of a friend of a friend, who walks out of his last final each May having lined up yet another of those summers that others will only dream of.
THE YOUNG MAN AND THE SEA
The summer of ’99 turned out to be the most eventful one of those so far. After making a beeline out of College Station with the end of finals, Sellers began backpacking and hitchhiking around Alaska in search of adventure and opportunity. One evening, eating with newly made friends from Thailand, he learned of a skipper in need of crewmembers. Drawing on his experience working on diesel engines, David was able to land the job and bring along his younger brother Seth, 18, as crew under him. David had already amassed a fair number of sea hours and so was also able to take the helm. Seth had just graduated high school.
It was already the height of fishing season in Alaska and there were many thousands of dollars per boat to be made or lost each week, depending upon the crew’s ability to efficiently find teeming waters, haul a catch aboard, and head back into port to disgorge the bounty and then refuel, resupply and repeat the process.
They had made the daylong voyage to waters nine hours out of Valdez, Alaska very near the area where the Exxon Valdez had run aground. David had already completed the impressive feat of taking on fresh tanks of the freezing cold water that floats next to icebergs as they melt. This water was used to enhance the boat’s refrigeration system.
As they set a course for their final destination where they would drop their nets, the captain took the helm with David’s reassurance that he would be just four feet away catnapping on the a bunk if the captain needed to step away from the wheel. Having little more than lain down to close his eyes, the boat was jarred to a complete stop. Time suddenly was of the essence.
NOTE TO SELF
In spite of the captain’s years of experience, he had somehow not seen a deep blue iceberg lying very near the water’s surface dead ahead. It had been obscured by the chop. The blueness of the berg not only permitted it to lurk undetected, it also indicated the berg’s destructive power. One mental note that any Alaskan sailor always maintains in the back of his mind is that the frosty whiteness of most icebergs is the result of contact with sunlight which makes the ice whiter and fluffier, less dense than the rock hard blue ice that resides near and below the surface. And, of course as most fifth graders know, the visible part of an iceberg represents only ten percent of its total volume.
THE SCRAMBLE FOR LIFE, LIMB, & LOVE
The boat had hit the berg directly, crushing the bow and the impact was not far from his brother, Seth’s, bunk. David immediately exited the wheelhouse and attempted to scramble forward onto the forecastle of the boat and below the deck to where his little brother might lay trapped, hurt, or worse. But the iceberg, after rolling up on its side then groaning and lurching its way along the side of the boat after the initial impact, was strangely protruding ten feet above the water’s surface where it was silently and formlessly threatening to topple and crush David against the wheelhouse. But it did not. It passed silently, unemotionally to the aft part of the boat to quietly resume its former course.
David regained his thoughts and continued to move forward on the boat in search of his younger brother. Within seconds the boat had begun to list and churn, taking on perhaps a hundred gallons of near freezing seawater per second.
There was an emergency escape hatch located on the foredeck that led directly down into the forecastle. David entered but could not find Seth below so he came above again to see that his younger brother had exited by way of the stairs at the rear of the forecastle and had already begun to don an exposure/wet suit designed to protect sailors from death within minutes of contact with the arctic water. David returned to the wheelhouse where he began to don his own exposure suit. In the blur, he sent out an SOS to other boats in the area, which fortunately, were full of sailors familiar with the waters. He also managed to grab his cameras which, rendered useless somewhere in the haze of escaping with his life, today sit safely, though encrusted with salt crystals, on a bookshelf at home.
Before David could seal the rescue suit around his face, the hull of the boat had completely vanished below the dark Alaskan water. All that remained visible was the wheelhouse where he was held up, and the rigging from which hung the boat’s nets. He noted that the water was beginning to hold the door to the wheelhouse shut as it pressed in, somehow slowly but quickly filling every crack, pushing all the air out. Leaving the exposure suit unsealed he began to heave against the door of the wheelhouse to avoid being trapped. As he wormed his way around the door against the current the water passed his chest and then his head.
He was under water.
He managed to wriggle his chest and hips through the door with the strength of someone who really was not sure he was going to get out alive. The pressure was so strong, the door slammed shut on his left foot, instantly breaking his left big toe. But he was free.
He sprang to the surface, which was now several feet above his head, and in a strange acrobatic move, he flipped, fish-like into the life raft with the captain and Seth. And that was everybody. His little brother now confesses that he had looked around just for a moment after the wheelhouse vanished below the surface and wondered where David was.
Then, as quickly as it all had begun, the three of them watched the boat turn stern end up and sputter and hiss as she vanished toward the ocean floor 250 feet below. Within an hour, another fishing boat, one hour behind them, arrived and hauled them all aboard. It was a sad loss. The Vanguard was a 69-foot fishing boat in the classic tradition, having been constructed of wood in 1925. The hull was of Douglas fir, the trim was of teak, and the frame was oak.
The collision occurred inside the Prince William Sound which had become a household name in March of 1989 when the Exxon Valdez went aground and released 11 million gallons of crude into the extremely complex, delicate ecosystem that the Sound constitutes. The Vanguard, dwarfed by comparison, was still taken very seriously by the Coast Guard. She had just come from refueling in Valdez: 2000 gallons of diesel, 500 gallons of gasoline, and 60 gallons of lubricating oil. Fortunately, the diesel was of a grade that was known to evaporate very quickly upon reaching the surface. That the Alaskan day was effectively 24 hours long helped in this regard. The gasoline also largely evaporated and the lubricant oil posed no unmanageable problem to the remediation teams. In spite of that, the crew remained on site (i.e. the crash site) for another two days before returning to the hospitality of the local community.
“It was really great. This kind of thing happens up there and there’s this great community spirit that it could just as easily have been any one of them. We were well taken care of, but I did not have clothes for a while.”
BACK FROM THE BRINK
The incident today represents the most extreme experience in that aspect of Sellers’ life closest to a Jack London novel. Safely back in College Station, Sellers recently found himself sitting on his Harley, talking about Alaska, the joys of an unattached life on the road, and his fascination with the sinuous relationship between this vast thing called architecture and his passion for working with his hands to create things of superior form and function.
ENTER THE ZEN OF ARCHITECTURE
If you’ve had the benefit of studying a little intellectual history, then when you leave the presence of David Sellers for the first time, you might well be washed over by this sense that Seller’s is living the collegiate life dreamt of in the most thought provoking works of 20th century American literature. When it comes to architecture and his eye for quality, you can see a kind of “Zen-and-the-Art-of-Motorcycle-Maintenance” flow in his approach to design. When Robert Pirsig wrote the book in 1974 it set off a bomb of honest, candid introspection among well-educated, unassuming Americans. In spite of the book’s name, it was mostly about the nature of quality and how not to over-complicate it, but also how not to truncate its more complex forms, that is, to see it in all its glory, regardless of whether that glory is simple or ornate.
Seller’s gets this. One prime piece of evidence of just how well he gets it is that in the semester he spent at Virginia Tech, he designed an award-winning chair, actually a chaise lounge, which can be completely constructed out of one sheet of plywood. The chair is a great example of simplicity and beauty, both supported with a thoughtful management of the intricate forces at work within a chair when someone simply sits down. His analysis of those forces goes all the way down to the individual joint within the chair.
Another deceptive simplicity within which hides a great deal of forethought is the fact that the only thing lost in the construction process of the chair is the wood removed in order to create the joints. Once assembled, it is structurally composed of one long columnar support that runs the length of the chair, directly below the centerline of the occupant. And crossing that central member are three members that give the chair lateral support. The joints, which are tight to begin with, are designed to actually tighten when the chair is occupied. Just to look at a photo of this chaise lounge, one might think it less than sturdy. But it’s not. There is no wiggle in it. None.
Of architecture and furniture, Sellers says, “Architecture has its own tectonics at the lowest, simplest level and furniture is the most intricate and involved when it comes to actual human interaction with architecture.” He admits not only to a long-standing fascination with furniture, but with design in general. Scraping all the artifice off of furniture in the name of getting down to those basic tectonics was, for Sellers, an act of humility, “starting at the bottom.”
He’s worked his entire life with wood, but says that his semester at Virginia Tech was his first exposure to a wood shop in an academic environment.
“With all the advice and critiques the results were good,” he said, “we just worked it out.”
He also had to design the tools which were used to create the chair and its numerous joints.
“That was probably the best part,” he said, “the fact that you can’t go to Sears and buy the tools that you need to create the piece.”
In effect that amounted to modifications to the router, lots of calculations to ensure that component parts would fit together snuggly, and assuring that the forces acting on them, once in place, would create stability and static equilibrium.
THE CHAIR’S THE THING
The chair, which includes no glue, nails, or threaded fasteners of any kind, “uses the nature of the plywood, the rigidity, the laminating of layers, and fact that it doesn’t have a great deal of change due to temperature and humidity.” For these reasons, Sellers points out, “a piece of hard wood just would not work.” For example, “If you were to go into the grain diagonally, you’d have a lot of problems with sheer; there would be a tendency to crack along the grain.”
And it’s comfortable, even without a cushion. “The chair’s actually scaled to me [and Sellers is easily six feet tall], but I wanted enough contact with the back that you shouldn’t need a cushion.”
In total, it’s six feet six inches in length, “so you can stretch out and take a nap if you want. It’s really a reading chair. And usually when I read I go to sleep.” He laughs at the admission. Also rather unassumingly, he’s OK with somebody else coming along and putting a cushion on the chair, for him it doesn’t violate the purity of what he accomplished in the design of the chair. Not only does he not consider it a sacrilege, he acknowledges that the chair can still be improved upon, that in its current state it is really about demonstrating that concept of the joint can be applied in reality. “I haven’t gone far enough with it. I think there’s room to grow. It’s a prototype. I know I can take it to another level.” He has other prototypical joints lying around the house to prove it.
Sellers credits the success of the chair, in part, to his contact with Marco Frascari and Jaan Holt. Frascari is the most prominent student and biographer of the late Carlos Scarpa. Holt is a professor and director of Virginia Tech’s Washington-Alexandria Center for Architecture. Holt also has a connection to Aggieland: he was on the jury for the Bonfire Memorial Competition. Both men are credited with giving Sellers valuable insight into many of the design aspects that came into play in conceiving of the chair. Currently, the chair sits in the main campus of Virginia Tech at Blacksburg having returned from a four-month stay in Mount Vernon, one of the few put on exhibit in Frank Lloyd Wright's Pope-Leighey House which is now part of the U.S. National Parks system.
After graduating in May 2002, Sellers hit the road again, heading back to Alaska to fish professionally and mull over his options. He will involuntarily continue to pursue his interest in pure, uncluttered design. And that, he says, may or may not bring him back to graduate school.
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