Master boat builder Tollefson to celebrate 100th birthday with many of his admirers

PORT LUDLOW — Legendary boat builder R.M. “Tolly” Tollefson will be honored today, Saturday, for reaching centenarian status by friends and admirers of his boat designs and ship-building skills.

“Tolly built quality boats,” said Donna Coffey, one of the organizers of the celebration.

“He was ahead of his time.”

Tollefson built his boats out of wood before switching to fiberglass in the late 1960s.

Those boats had a solid, thick hull and could remain undamaged in severe conditions that would break other boats into pieces, Coffey said.

Tollefson, whose 100th birthday is on Monday, lives in Port Ludlow.

He is revered by the people who own his boats, which he designed and built from the time he founded the Tollycraft Corp. in 1952 to when he sold it in 1987.

The new owners were unable to keep the business afloat and the company went bankrupt in 1993.

Many of the older boats are still afloat, and there are several Tollycraft clubs where the old boats are venerated.

It is the Tollycraft club members who will help Tollefson ring in his second century with about 130 guests expected, Coffey said.

The invitation-only celebration will begin with a lunch at the Bay Club in Port Ludlow and will be followed by a reception at the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend.

There, guests will view the biographical exhibit that Coffey assembled from Tollefson’s pictures and memorabilia.

Neither event is open to the general public.

However, the Northwest Maritime Center exhibit will be open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays through March.

Coffey said that Tollefson is “physically frail but mentally sharp.”

She said that he is still able to recognize and identify specific models, and can distinguish one size boat from another by its shape and features.

This is confirmed by Scott Fultz, who has known Tollefson for five years and now acts as his caretaker “because he is comfortable with me.”

Fultz said that Tollefson watches a lot of television and still reads every boating magazine published “but is like anyone that age — his sight and hearing are not what they used to be.”

Fultz said that Tollefson enjoys talking to Tollycraft enthusiasts, and that the phone has been ringing off the hook with calls from well-wishers in the last few days.

“It’s been more than 25 years since he made his last boat and people are still as excited about them as they were when they were new,” Fultz said.

He said the appeal of Tollycraft Yachts can’t be defined in absolute terms, but feels the boats recall a classic time in a way similar to the 1955 Chevrolet.

Part of the boats’ appeal comes from Tollefson’s habit to listen carefully to customers about what they wanted from their boats.

Coffey said he was one of the only boat builders who listened to women and designed boats they would like.

“His boats had a classic style that women appreciated,” Coffey said.

Fultz said that about 6,500 Tolleycraft yachts were produced during the time Tollefson ran the company, but it was impossible to say how many are still afloat.

“I’ve thought of running ads in boating magazines to get people to write in about the individual boats,” he said.

“But I really have no idea how many are still around.”

Tollefson never built his dream boat, a 53-foot yacht, although its plans are included in the Maritime Center exhibit.

“His boats weren’t glitzy,” Coffey said.

“They were classic.”

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Jefferson County Reporter Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or charlie.bermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

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