PORT TOWNSEND — When he was 4 years old, Dan Newland started building model airplanes, the kind with plastic parts you punch out and snap together.
By the time he was in grade school, he had graduated to more complicated kits.
“Once I started reading, the quality of construction got better,” he said.
Newland is a Port Townsend boat-builder who designs, builds and races ocean-going sailboats and who has won three single-handed trans-Pacific races.
But he’s reverting to his boyhood hobby, joined by other members of the Port Townsend Yacht Club, in creating their own fleet of model racing sailboats, despite having the real thing.
“It’s always been fun,” Newland said of building model boats.
It was Michael Machette who proposed the idea to yacht club members after seeing a model-boat demonstration by Will Lesh at the Wooden Boat Festival last fall.
Lesh, a Princeton University graduate, designed and makes traditional-style, wooden model-sailboat kits in Everson, near Bellingham.
Since he started the business, Tippecanoe Boats, in 1983, Lesh has sold more than 65,000 kits to people in 60 countries, he said in a phone interview last week.
“I just sent shipments to Portugal, Malta and Afghanistan,” he said.
Yacht clubs have been the base of his business, Lesh said, since they provide a pool of interested people to create a fleet and hold races.
Two Seattle yacht clubs have T37 fleets, he said, T standing for Tippecanoe and 37 the boat length in inches.
Oak Harbor and Bainbridge Island yacht clubs also have fleets, he said.
“It’s a Puget Sound happening,” Lesh said.
The Port Madison Yacht Club on Bainbridge Island already has contacted Machette to challenge the Port Townsend fleet to a regatta, suggesting they meet halfway at Port Ludlow.
But that will have to wait until the Port Townsend builders gets their boats together.
So far, about half of the dozen kits ordered have been completed, Machette said.
Last Thursday, he and others whose craft are in progress gathered at the Port Townsend Yacht Club, adjacent to the commercial boat dock in the boat haven, to watch John Oliveira take his newly completed boat for its inaugural sail.
It was spitting rain, but the Gray Lady didn’t need much wind to glide across the water.
“It sails real good,” Oliveira said as he used one control to turn the rudder and bring the boat about, then another to let out the sails.
For model-boat racing, the total weight of the boat (5 pounds for the T37) and the sail must conform to standards.
But because Lesh’s models are made from wood, the decks can be customized.
Newland, who owns Pegasus Aeromarine, and Alan Greenwald, a local orthopedic surgeon, made their boats’ decks out of strips of planking instead of the sheet of mahogany provided.
Boats also can be customized by color — Machette’s boat, Noir, has a black hull — and the kit builder provides sails in a variety of colors.
Racing a boat you made yourself adds another dimension to the hobby, Lesh said.
“It’s different sailing a boat you built,” he said.
Lesh also makes finished boats on request and was commissioned to make three identical T27s for a movie filmed in New York.
Model-boat racing in the pond at Central Park figures in the plot, he said, and one of the lead characters gives a T27 to another as a gift.
Scheduled to be released in February, the drama “The Bitter Pill” stars Jude Law, Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum, but Lesh will be looking at the background — 15 of his New York customers were hired as extras.
“All the boats on the pond are Tippecanoe boats,” Lesh said.
Building and sailing a model boat is a perfect introduction to sailboat racing, Machette said, because it teaches the parts of the boat, fundamentals of sailing and rules of racing.
Middle-school students in La Conner have built boats from Lesh’s kits, Machette said.
He and Newland are talking with the Northwest Maritime Center about offering a workshop for local middle-school students, perhaps in conjunction with next fall’s Wooden Boat Festival.
“It would lead right into joining the high-school sailing team,” Machette said. “They’d be primed.”
The kits are expensive, but unlike owning a real sailboat, operating costs are nil — no moorage fees, no registration, no haul-out or maintenance bills.
And as Newland, who has raced sailboats all over the world, noted, “You can have a nasty day of sailing and not get wet.”
Anyone interested in building a T37 is eligible to join the local fleet.
For more information, email Machette at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information about Tippecanoe Boats, visit www.modelsailboat.com.
Jennifer Jackson is a freelance writer and photographer living in Port Townsend. To contact her, email email@example.com.