The Western Flyer

In the cavernous Building One at the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-op, Tim Lee and Ryan Breckel work their way around endless piles of sawdust and stacked oak timbers, under the shadow of the Western Flyer – the same iconic fishing boat once chartered by John Steinbeck for a six-week exploratory science adventure in 1940. Using a 65-year-old Rockwell Crescent P-24 planer, oak timbers from Kentucky are being milled into new frames for the 76-foot-long vessel that is getting another chance at life, after a storied history that has included several sinkings and multiple overhauls.

This particular building is the entrance to the co-op, where visitors experience a sensory overload: the smell of fresh-cut lumber, the buzzing of woodworking machinery, the clattering of lumber moving around.
The airplane hangar-like space is just one of the co-op’s four buildings, totaling 30,000 square feet, filled with tools, wood, supplies, plumbing, a metal shop, spray booth and space for boats in various states of repair. The co-op prides itself on being able to repair fishing, motor and sailing vessels from stem to stern, and work often comes via word of mouth. Each boat relies on the expert attention to detail that the co-op is known for, to get recreational and commercial vessels underway after time on the hard.
Endless Possibilities

With the cabin top removed and decades of blistered paint sanded down, co-op employee Lee O’Conner gives the interior of the Western Flyer pilot house a fresh coat of primer.

The layout of the housing is still original from when Steinbeck and company were aboard, unusual as most boats of this age are typically updated with modern technology, such as a microwave or fridge, necessitating new holes to be cut in the original framing.
As the Flyer is remodeled, the goal is to keep the vessel intact as much as possible, including the original glass windows. However, down below, parts of the Flyer will be remodeled into educational spaces for students, such as the fish hold, which will be remodeled into a research facility.
The member-owners and employees have a variety of skills and knowledge in the specific aspects that make a vessel operate. Being a full-service boat yard includes caulking, electrical, interiors, machining, marine finishes, mechanical, metal fabrication, props, shafts, rigging, spars, structural woodwork, systems and upholstery. The co-op’s member owners and employees look to each other for support and to solve any problem that comes their way.
Of the few things the co-op cannot do for a boat, such as make or repair sails, the owners only need to go down the street and visit their industry friends.
Tried and True Today

Co-op employee Lachlan Carlson muscles in a new stern post onto the Western Flyer.

There will be a few new timbers in the keel but most of the hull is going to be new wood. Purple heart, an exceptionally hard wood, will be used for the stern lifts. The co-op often makes parts on-site from raw materials, making each piece unique.
Overhauling a vessel as extensively as the Flyer is similar to doing a new build, which includes bringing in raw timber to replace rotting parts. Typically, lofting techniques are used to build each new replacement piece, which includes drawing out the vessel in three dimensions full size on the loft floor, transferring the drawing to a new piece of raw wood, then carving it out using chainsaws, planers, chisels and grinders.
The methods used on ship repairs today are akin to what’s been done for hundreds of years to build and fix boats. While there are always efforts to find innovative ways to do something more efficiently, sometimes the tried-and-true methods that have worked for generations are the best, even if it takes longer (most of the time, the old ways of doing it are faster). The same applies when shipwrights have to travel to vessels far away, such as in Seward and Kodiak, Alaska, or Hawaii, for example. Boats are meant to be fixed on-site, with parts to pull out, fix and fit back in, compared to today’s throw-away society.
A rewarding part of being a shipwright is problem-solving and seeing the end product. Helping a commercial fishing boat get back to full operations means helping someone provide for their family.
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