The Public Workshop
Surrounded by tools, paint, sawhorses, tables and boats in various states of repair – on stands, suspended from the ceiling or leaning against a wall – the space is in constant flux as its use changes, often in the glow of the ample light from the shop’s nearly floor-to-ceiling open warehouse doors.
The location on the downtown Port Townsend waterfront allows the public a rare opportunity to witness the daily workings of small boat businesses, even sometimes participate, if the timing is right. Go ahead, walk right on in. Ask the questions. Read the displays. Marvel at the detailed work that, for the most part, can only be done by hand. It’s part of the art of wooden boats – keeping the spirit alive for this craft that’s been around for centuries, and always in search of seafaring adventures.
Helma initially came in for a new deck, but it quickly became apparent that she was full of decades of patches and repairs, and needed a near-complete overhaul. Purple heart, oak laminate and western larch are being used to restore her interior, exterior and hull, plus bronze to replace the original iron fasteners. What remains original of Helma includes the lead keel, the cabin sides and roof, the breast hook and the teak gunnel planks.
Zoltan is an example of the kind of craftsman that Doug and Robert hope carries forward the spirit of and dedication to wooden boat work. An apprentice from the well regarded Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway on the East Coast, Zoltan’s talents were recognized when he showed up in Port Townsend. Robert quickly put him to work.
Finding skilled craftspeople like Zoltan is getting harder and harder. More wooden boats are repaired than constructed these days, so knowing the intricacies of what it takes to repair them is important. Port Townsend is lucky, with the teaching grounds of the famous Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding, plus the many shops of talent throughout town, each with its own twist, keeping the art of the wooden boat alive.
The maritime industry of Port Townsend is filled with shops that can not only repair a boat, but also build it from stem to stern. Upholster the interior. Cast the hardware needed. Hand sew the sails. Build a new deck. Convert a fish hold into a floating science laboratory. Store your boat to keep her safe while traveling the world for work. All these services are within a few miles of each other.
But why wooden boats?
The allure of the romance of adventure. The beauty of the craft. The sculpting of a vessel by hand out of a natural product. It’s an art, a necessity, a source of transportation. A way of life that feeds a family, even a community.
Passing on institutional knowledge from builders such as Doug and Robert is key to the future of wooden boatbuilding, but there are practicalities to consider as well. The maritime trades are one of the top economic engines in Washington State: the state ferry system, commercial and private transportation companies, boatbuilding and repair outfits. And Port Townsend is prime training grounds for someone to become a proficient and skilled tradesperson to carry on this work.
The wooden boat culture doesn’t stop at its mariners and builders. Those same folks work hard to provide opportunities for the public to get true sailing experiences, such as trips on the historic ships Martha and Adventuress, two beautiful schooners based out of Port Townsend. Physically experiencing a sailing vessel versus just looking at her makes all the difference.