PAT NEAL COLUMN: Gather ye ’round for the tale of the Gertie

THERE ARE FEW things I enjoy more than gazing at the graceful lines of a wooden boat.

Once upon a time, to prove my love of wooden boats, I actually built one myself.

This is not something I would recommend to anyone.

Building a wooden boat is no more complicated than say, rebuilding the engine in your automobile except for one small detail.

If you forget to tighten a nut here or a bolt there or use bacon rinds for main bearings and your engine blows up, you can just pretend you ran out of gas and walk home.

If you build a wooden boat and it sinks — say at a crowded public boat ramp on a Saturday morning where everyone is waiting for you to salvage the wreck so they can launch — it can be very embarrassing, even if you do survive.

Building a wooden boat calls for an exceptional level of woodworking skills that require years of experience to master.

In addition, there are a lot of special tools, fittings and wooden-boat-building tricks that can make the job a whole lot easier.

The first things you’ll need to build a wooden boat are a lot of those little metal pointy things with the flat top on one end.

That’s what holds your wooden boat together.

Next, you’ll need a chunk of metal mounted on a wood handle to bash the pointy metal things into the wood.

It helps if your metal basher has a claw thing on it in case you pound stuff in the wrong place and have to rip it all out again.

It happens.

It is at this point that a bit of caution is advised in the building of your wooden boat.

To pound the pointy metal things into the wood, you must grasp them between your thumb and forefinger and hit them with the metal basher.

It is at this crucial moment when it is possible — and even likely — that you will miss and hammer your thumb.

When it comes to building a wooden boat, it’s safety first.

You’ll want a deluxe first aid kit handy with plenty of field dressings and pain medications on hand.

You may have to cut the wood while building a wooden boat.

How you do that is your own business.

I prefer a saw with a pull cord.

Holding a piece of wood in one hand while cutting it with a chain saw is a forgotten art that few wooden boat builders have mastered.

Remember accuracy counts more than speed.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to measure the wood before you cut it.

I recommend using one of those fancy thin, metal things with the little marks and numbers all over it.

I wish I had used one.

Next, you’ll want to pay close attention to what you build your wooden boat out of.

I used wood.

It wasn’t just any wood either, nothing but the finest Alaskan yellow cedar and old-growth Douglas fir that I milled myself.

Sure, it was a lot of extra trouble, but it was all worthwhile until the day I launched Gertie.

She was named after the Press Expedition party barge that sank in the Elwha River during the hard winter of 1889-90.

It’s always bad idea to name your wooden boat after another sunken wooden boat.

I know that now.

A hundred years later the curse of the Gertie returned when my proud craft was bashed by the rocks of the upper Dungeness. She sank to her final resting place.

Someday I’ll build another wooden boat. But first I’ll try to rebuild my car’s engine.


Pat Neal is a North Olympic Peninsula fishing guide and humorist. His column appears Wednesdays.

Pat can be reached at 360-683-9867 or [email protected], or see his blog at

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