2020 Person of the Year, Norwegian American Chamber of Commerce: Tor Henry Tollessen
“Tor Stories” as told by John Douglas Dixon, Pacific Fishermen, Inc.
Tor Henry Tollessen is a man who has charmed many. Some know him as a founder of Lunde Marine Electronics but are unaware of his history as a Norwegian fisherman and his journeys in wide-ranging business ventures from an island in Norway. Tor is a natural salesman and a politically incorrect flirt. His enthusiasm for his fellow man knows no bounds and never has. His easy-going nature, smile, and willingness to help are always present.
Tor was born in 1945 and raised on the island of Karmøy, Norway. After finishing college and electrical school, his dream was to travel to America. In 1965, using money given to him by his grandmother, Tor left to pursue the American Dream and buy an American-made car… to be popular with the girls! Tor achieved his goal, bought a ‘67 Chevrolet Malibu and found his girl, Ingrid.
With $64 in his pocket, he arrived in New Bedford, Mass., where he landed his first job with Kaare Ness on the new wooden Viking Queen to fish scallops, with hopes to go crab fishing in Alaska. There’s not enough time to share all the great stories involving Tor from over the years, so here are three that are a testament to Tor’s true heroism and selflessness.
Tor Story No. 1: Ammonia Fire
In 1978, on the factory trawler F/V Northern Aurora, a serious fire had broken out in a space allocated to its ammonia refrigeration system. Danger of an explosion was imminent, as the fire spread.
All hands were forced to retreat to the farthest forward point, helpless as the fire roared. Tor responded with his own adrenaline. He wrapped himself in sea-soaked blankets and advanced into the inferno.
He shut off the critical valves, bringing the fire under control. If his lungs suffered damage from the ammonia, gas, fire, and smoke, he never mentioned it.
Tor Story No. 2: Man Overboard
In 1979, in the cold northerly open reaches of the Bering Sea, crewmate Sigmund Ingebretsen was swept overboard from Tor’s fishing boat F/V Northern Aurora with Magne Nes at the helm. TThe vessel could not reach him because of rough conditions and the time it takes to execute necessary maneuvers.
Tor’s adrenaline yet again super-charged his body. Disregarding his sense of self preservation, Tor plunged into the icy waters after Sigmund, bringing him safely to a floatation device.
Incredibly, he succeeded, making possible the teamwork to recover his crew mate alive. Perseverance and courage have made Tor a survivor, contributing to the survival of others.
Tor Story No. 3: Herring Skiff
by Michael Sherlock of Mischief Distillery
It started back when Icicle Seafoods first came up to Bristol Bay. Icicle gathered a group of fishermen to come with them to make sure that if there were any fish around, they would get their fair share …. I was lucky enough to be picked. What the coolest thing it was!
It was May 1979, and there was still snow, sleet, rain, and unreal storms .… We had a storm that lasted six days, with the wind not going below 80 and as high as 107. It was a different world. I had my 30 x 11-foot. herring skiff tied on back along with others. Mine had broken loose and was drifting towards Togiak.
I thought my season was over, as I watched it drift off. As I watched, a vessel was making its way toward the Icicle barge Arctic Star in probably 20-foot seas or better. All we could see were the brightest lights I had ever seen on a boat we thought was a crabber trying to find calmer anchoring. As we were watching, it was heading toward the barge. Everyone on the barge was seasick, and there was mass confusion.
As the vessel approached with unreal precision, they radioed the barge and said they had picked up a herring skiff and thought someone would probably like to get it back. Pretty cool, as they approached the barge and never stopped moving. They picked up my skiff with their crane, getting as close as they could, and set it on to the barge. They did all this with the wind and seas.
It was impressive … it was the F/V Northern Aurora with Tor and Magne Nes. When I caught up to these guys to thank them, all they said to me was that we didn’t want a fellow fisherman to end his season before it started.
I was able to finish my season with 240 tons of herring at $1,100 a ton = $264,000. Pretty darn cool for a 20-year-old.
That was what started my career. These guys were visionaries, ahead of their time. I might not be where I am today if I hadn’t got that skiff back.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 15, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.