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Wooden Boats

By On

Whatever happened to the building of wooden boats on Bellingham Bay? The tradition and the history are rich here, as people like myself, oblivious to the craft, learned recently at the Whatcom Museum's shipwright exhibit. Before steam, the bay was filled with tall ships and an army of skilled tradesmen who looked after them. We've seen the images. And though sails largely gave way to combustion in the early 1900s, the construction of wooden hulls for work boats and pleasure craft remained a common sight in Bellingham through the mid-1900s. By the 1950s, fiberglass had begun to overshadow wood as our town emerged as the country's first producer of all-fiberglass boats (from the Bell Boy Boat Company) and a leading manufacturer of post-war minesweepers for the U.S. Navy.

I know of only a handful of people on the waterfront and in a few scattered backyards who are still whittling away, so to speak, turning the guts of trees into liquid-friendly vehicles. A few others, of course, are busily taking care of the wooden gems that are currently afloat. More are probably thinking about it.

Is there a future for wooden boats in Bellingham? Are wooden hulls technologically relevant anymore? Are they more or less green and sustainable than, say, fiberglass? Is there much hope beyond the nostalgic that someday people will build such boats on a less pretentious working waterfront; that denizens walking along the harbor might detect the smell of steam-bent oak behind the aromatic wafting of $4 million yacht exhaust? Is the Port (or any Port candidate) interested in sustaining or reigniting this small but important piece of a Northwest maritime community's history? Or will we need to perennially visit the Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle or the harbor at Port Townsend to get a good glimpse of an unfolding story that once was Bellingham's?

I should note here, for those with some interest in the subject, the annual Wooden Boat Festival at Port Townsend runs Friday through Sunday, September 11-13 (info at www.woodenboat.org). To eliminate the worry about ferry lines, park on the Keystone side and walk on. The boat fest is only a few blocks from the Port Townsend dock. (Kris and I will look for you Friday night at the Deadwood Revival gig.)

I may be an advocate, but I am no authority on wooden boats, other than one in particular—a boat my dad built on a farm in California in the early sixties. His 40-foot, gaff-rigged, flush-deck schooner was a beauty. It was his second schooner and one that he designed himself, borrowing the features he liked best from other boats and from boat-building books. His first, a 30-footer, came into being in the 1950s while he apprenticed at the W.F. Stone Boat Yard in Alemeda, California.

He recently shared a letter with me that he wrote to his parents shortly after surviving a heavy gale off Point Conception near Santa Barbara. The 30-footer had performed perfectly, he wrote, in enormous seas and winds above 60 knots. Not a bucket of water washed over the deck, he said. He sold that first schooner not long afterward, at the urging of his new wife. They had been knocked down by a sudden gust at midnight, twenty miles outside of San Francisco Bay. The heavy keel immediately righted the boat. Despite the mishap, Clarice remained eager to sail with him, but insisted on the security and comforts of a somewhat larger boat. Schooner #1 met a tragic end when a subsequent owner, while enjoying a good nap, drifted onto a coral reef near Tahiti. After a few heroic hours of trying to save her, including an assist from the French Navy, she quietly went under.

Though I never saw either of these boats (my parents divorced when I was an infant), I made it my cause last year to go looking for Schooner #2, with the notion that she might still be afloat somewhere. She shouldn't be too difficult to recognize, with her double gaff, aft cockpit, ornate taffrail and rectangular portholes. Dad and his wife sailed her down the coast, sailed to Mexico several times, cruised for a year via Tahiti and Hawaii, and lived on their schooner for several years more in the harbor at San Diego. They sold her, oddly enough, just several months before I first met my dad in the fall of 1971. I was fresh out of high school. Neither of us knew enough to stay in touch and I lost him again for most of two decades as he went on to build a 50-foot ketch and later an airplane, from scratch, in Arizona.

It's been a fascinating search for not only a lost schooner, but for some genetically relevant insight on this respectable, adventurous man who claims to be my dad. The story has generated a new book project—and a refreshing cause to engage in.

My own story aside, I'd like to believe that Bellingham still has a soft spot for wooden boats—and a working waterfront to care for them. Will the redevelopment of the former GP site bring us such an opportunity?—something more than an odiously tidy expansion of downtown? Whatever transpires there, I'd like to believe that some part of its underbelly will be made of wood.

About Ken Wilcox

Closed Account • Member since Mar 19, 2009

Comments by Readers

John Lesow

Sep 12, 2009

Beautifully written, Ken.  I’m no sailor, but I can almost picture your boat.

Maybe we’ll see the likes of her on the Bellingham Waterfront someday….