Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 8:48 PM on Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Capt. Joe Litchfield Leaves impressive wake by land, sea

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer

Editor's note: "Kachemak Color" features residents who make the communities of the southern Kenai Peninsula interesting. If you know of someone who you think would make a good story, call the editor at 235-7767.

There's no denying Capt. Joe Litchfield, a Kachemak Drive resident, is a man of the sea.

"Joe looks and acts a bit like Popeye," wrote David W. Jourdan in his book, "The Deep Sea Quest for Amelia Earhart."

Jourdan is the founder and president of Nauticos, the ocean exploration company actively involved in the search for the wreckage of Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra lost in 1937 during Earhart's attempt to fly around the planet. Litchfield has served as first mate aboard the 175-foot research vessel, the R/V Davidson, Nauticos' at-sea base of operations.


Photo by McKibben Jackinsky, Homer News

Capt. Joe Litchfield: "Joe looks and acts a bit like Popeye," wrote David W. Jourdan in his book, "The Deep Sea Quest for Amelia Earhart."

Jourdan went on to describe Litchfield as the "most experienced and competent sailor on the crew. His gravelly voice, squinting eye and mock-gruff manner belied a sharp intelligence, keen professionalism and a heart of gold."

Ask the Homer Garden Club about Litchfield and a different, but no less impressive figure emerges. In February, Litchfield was part of a panel that spoke about raising vegetables.

"His artichoke plants are astronomical," said Brenda Adams, who attended the February meeting. "I've not seen anything like this. They tower over my head, taller than I am."

Litchfield's green thumb isn't limited to artichokes.

"He has a big patch of asparagus, is into an experiment growing mushrooms, he's been experimenting with grape vines and last fall finally ended up with the one that will be the winner for him," said Adams. "Carrots, beets, onions. They're all huge."

Of course, it could be Litchfield's connection to the sea that is behind his gardening success.

"He has a magic formula, part of which is his water. He puts seaweed and other additives into his water system. I can't tell you all the details, but I know that was one of the things," said Adams. "His plants are just so far over the top that it's amazing."

Then there's Litchfield's involvement with the Kachemak Drive Path Committee, an affiliation reflecting his concern how such a path might impact the yard surrounding the home he shares with his wife and local dentist, Vickey Hodnik.

"They had a meeting, open to the public, to talk about expanding the roadway by 40 feet across my yard so I went there and the next thing I knew, I was on the committee," Litchfield said laughing. "The fact is, I want safe passage from East Road to the Spit, but I don't want it going through my front yard."

David Clemens, also is on the committee, recalled Litchfield's original interest.

"Joe came as sort of a representative of the landowners along there, but now he's part of the group, throwing ideas around," said Clemens, who came from a biker's perspective. "It's good to exchange points of view."

Getting things done by committee is a long way from the decision-making process operating at sea. Ask any boat captain. What the captain says is law. That was Litchfield's experience as a Maine-born fisherman. After coming to Alaska in the 1980s, however, Litchfield discovered he needed a Coast Guard license in order to be recognized as the captain aboard the large catcher-processor vessels on which he worked out of Dutch Harbor.

"I was the deck boss and realized after awhile that these half-witted clamdiggers couldn't catch anything," said Litchfield. Litchfield enrolled in classes at AVTEC, Alaska's Institute of Technology, took the required classes, passed the test designating him a captain and returned to Dutch Harbor in the top spot.

About 10 years ago, Litchfield set aside his love of fishing for a new adventure: serving as second mate on the R/V Davidson. The scientists aboard the Davidson determined the route for fiber optic cable between Alaska, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and Fiji. That experience led to scientific work in other locations, including the Arctic Ocean. Litchfield helped installed the early warning tsunami buoys around the Pacific Rim, a 10.5-month trip that took him to Alaska, California, Australia, Hawaii, New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Japan and Russia. His work aboard the Davidson also resulted in serving as first mate for Nautico's search for Amelia Earhart and her Electra.

Nautico has conducted three expeditions and is preparing for a third one the end of this year or the beginning of 2012. Litchfield's skillful handling of the ship and his valuable sense of humor at sea are documented in Jourdan's book. It also mentions Litchfield's marriage to Hodnick.

"Joe said that before he met Vickey, he wrote to the Lonely Hearts Club and sent his picture ... but they wrote back and said they weren't that lonely," wrote Jourdan.

Of Hodnik, Litchfield said, "She's the one greatest accomplishment in my whole life. I was going out to sea and wanted to have my teeth checked out. She had an opening, I went up there and met her and fell in love."

That's says a lot for someone who still harbors a soft spot for his first love.

"Never a day goes by to this minute that I don't miss fishing," said Litchfield.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.