Around the world in (almost) 80 years: Wooden boat builder honored for lifetime achievement

PORT TOWNSEND — When he was 17 years old, Dale Nordlund left Seattle’s Ballard High School and enrolled in a two-year, apprentice boat-building program on Lake Union.

The year was 1947, boats were still made of wood, and all of the students except Dale and a boy named Jack were ex-service men using the G.I. Bill to learn a trade.

After work, Jack would talk about his dream of building a boat and sailing the South Seas. It wasn’t a dream Nordlund shared.

“I was content to sail up and down the coast of Washington and British Columbia,” he recalled.

Nordlund went on to build wooden boats and cruise the seven seas, as well as travel all over the world teaching people how to build wooden fishing boats through the FAO, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

On Thursday, he was honored by the Wooden Boat Foundation, which gave Nordlund his first lifetime achievement award.

The award not only recognizes Nordlund’s work teaching boat-building in the United Nations program, but also his influence in the wider Port Townsend and British Columbia boating community, said Wooden Boat Festival director Kaci Cronkhite.

“He’s taught us, inspired us and helped us learn to do things, and always in a way that didn’t make you feel stupid,” Cronkhite said.

“He didn’t just teach us about building boats. He taught us how to be.”

Raised in a boating family, Nordlund built his first wooden craft, a 22-foot, gaff-rigged sailboat, in the family’s backyard in Ballard.

He sailed it in Puget Sound, occasionally putting into Port Townsend. After completing the trade program, he spent another year and one-half as an apprentice in the Lake Union boat yard, then he sailed up the British Columbia coast.

There, he married a Canadian woman, and started working in a small logging operation, doing high-lead logging.

The base was in an inlet where everything, including their house and the outbuildings, were on floats, Nordlund said.

First Aegean

Working nights, he started building the first Aegean, a 38-foot ketch, in a shed on floats without any electricity.

“I had a stand with a gas light on it that I slid around where I needed it,” Nordlund said. “I had to burrow the holes with a breast drill — you lean on it and crank.”

Nordlund, who had part interest in a sawmill, also logged and milled Western red cedar, yellow cedar and fir for the boat, importing only oak for the frame and teak for the deck.

After six months of working on the boat at night, he leased his logging equipment and spent a year building full-time.

In 1962, he and his wife, Betty, sailed it down the coast, planning to set up house in a place where daughters Shelley, 2 ½, and Jule, 7, could go to school.

“I asked Betty, ‘What if we keep moving?'” Nordlund said.

They did, sailing onto the South Pacific and Australia. When money ran out, Nordlund went to work in a boatyard, maintaining the fleet of wooden boats.

From there, they sailed to Japan, where Betty, who had contracted malaria, received treatment.

After three years of cruising, they returned to Vancouver Island in 1965.

In 1969, Nordlund was hired by the United Nations to work for the FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization, based in Rome, to teach people in third-world countries to build wood plank fishing boats.

With forests depleted, wood plank boats were more efficient to build and operate than traditional dug-out canoes, Nordlund said.

For the next 17 years, he worked off and on for the FAO, teaching boat building in Papua New Guinea, Nepal, Malawi, Ghana and Nigeria,

One trip to Nigeria was just after the Biafran War had ended, and he and an FAO limnologist — a person who studies inland water systems such as lakes, rivers, streams, and marshes — were the first to pilot a houseboat up the Niger River.

Arrested upon arrival

Arriving in the first big town, they were immediately arrested and taken to headquarters.

“Luckily the head officer had heard of our program,” Nordlund said.

“They let us go, but it was a two-hour walk back to the boat.”

The FAO program used local materials for the boats, most of which were small plank-hulled boats that could be paddled, Nordlund said.

In between trips, he built sailboats for other people, and after selling the first Aegean, started on the second.

“I designed it completely because I had definite ideas of what I wanted,” he said.

An upgrade

A 45-foot cutter, the second Aegean was built using electricity, Nordlund said, recalling the luxury of drilling holes with a power drill.

He owned it for 31 years, cruising in it all over the world, and meeting other sailors along the way, including Carol Hasse, who later started a sail-making business in Port Townsend.

It was in Gibraltar that Nordlund first met George Maynard, a boat-builder who sailed around the world on a boat without a motor.

Maynard had followed Nordlund’s cutter into port, Nordlund said, and when he went to clear customs, Maynard was alarmed to hear a voice of a child, seemingly in distress, coming from below deck.

Questioning Nordlund when he returned, Maynard learned that the voice belonged to Lori, an Amazon yellow-naped parrot.

Maynard later wrote the story in his memoirs, noting that the parrot could sing arias in two-part harmony. It was a slight exaggeration.

“Of course it sang opera, but not well,” Nordlund said.

Mats Mats Bay

Nordlund bought land on Mats Mats Bay near Port Ludlow in 1981, built a house and had a barn that he used to build wooden boats, and also rented to local boat builders, including Ginna D’Amore and Dennis Maguire.

The second Aegean made its last big trip in 1991, when Nordlund sailed it to Hawaii with friends and spent the year there. In 2002, he sold the cutter in Alaska, but it now is back in Port Townsend, owned by a local family.

Boats that Nordlund built for other people still come into port from time to time, including Talisker Sky, which was launched in 1968, said Carlyn Stark, former director of Four Winds Camp on Orcas Island and Nordlund’s current partner.

Nordlund and Stark, who have been together for 11 years, still go cruising, although they traded her sailboat for a powerboat a few years ago.

But despite recovering from heart surgery and the loss of vision in one eye, Nordlund still goes down to his barn on Mats Mats Bay and works on wooden boats.

“It’s my trade,” he says. “It’s what I know.”


Port Townsend/Jefferson County reporter-columnist Jennifer Jackson can be reached at

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