New wooden boat school director sets a heading toward fundraising

PORT HADLOCK — It is a laid-back summer day in Lower Hadlock, and the blue waters of the bay glint invitingly in the sunlight.

But not everyone on the waterfront is relaxing.

Next to the dock, Charley Erskine is working on the stern of a classic, 36-foot wooden motor-sailor.

In the adjacent building, sweet with the smell of sawdust, sunlight falls across the gunwales of a wooden skiff that Ray Speck is sealing with varnish.

Erskine is a student in repairs and restoration, and Speck is a master boat builder who teaches at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding.

For 18 months, the school has carried on without a separate director, but now a new leader has taken the helm and the school is back on course.

“We’re moving forward,” said Bill Mahler, the new director.

Forward is implementing capital plans the school adopted several years ago to expand the physical plant on five acres overlooking the waterfront.

That’s where Mahler, with 25 years of experience in fundraising and management, comes in.

‘Long-range plan’

A Ballard native, he served as vice president of the Children’s Home Society of Washington for 14 years, and before that ran a hospital foundation.

“I’m charged with looking at the long-range plan and seeing where to go,” Mahler said, “and raising the money to do it.”

The school has already survived stormy financial seas and stayed afloat.

Part of the problem, Mahler said, was economic backwash that struck Northwest shores in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, affecting enrollment.

Then the bank that financed student loans scuttled the program, resulting in the loss of 15 students.

In 2005, financial constraints resulted in one person, Jeff Hammond, serving in three capacities –director, chief instructor and teacher.

“It’s really a credit to the board and the staff, who kept it going,” Mahler said.

“It shows how committed they were.”

Staff reorganizes

Now Mahler has taken over the administrative side, supervising four employees, and Tim Lee, chief instructor, oversees a teaching staff of six.

Enrollment ranges between 40 to 50 students, Mahler said, but with more space, the school could expand that number.

Now, students in large-craft repair and restoration are working in a tent, donated by the Port Townsend Paper Corp. mill, on the upper part of the campus.

The school’s immediate priorities: replacing the tent with a building, and renovating or replacing the dock, which is closed for safety reasons.

“We had an estimate of three-quarters of million [dollars] to renovate the dock a few years ago,” Mahler said.

“The alternative is to create a floating dock on a smaller scale. It depends on how the dock fits in with the school’s mission.”

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