Port Townsend’s rich shipyard past retold at library

PORT TOWNSEND — Leif Knutsen was a farmer. Michael Aubin had a master’s degree in fine arts. Dave Thompson grew up in the yachting set.

Knutsen, Thompson and Aubin all became shipwrights, Aubin starting his career in a New England boatyard repairing inshore lobster fishing boats.

The little craft were nothing like the steel sword-fishing vessels in Linda Greenlaw’s book, The Hungry Ocean, but the goal was the same: to wrest a living from the sea.

It is a goal that shipwrights in Port Townsend have helped commercial fishermen achieve for more than three decades.

Mecca for boats

On Tuesday night, Knutsen, Aubin and four other shipwrights gathered in the Northwest Maritime Center Tuesday to tell how they re-invented Port Townsend as an off-season mecca for wooden vessels in the Alaskan fishing fleet in last quarter of the 20th century.

The reason: starting with literally little or no overhead — i.e. working out of their trucks — Port Townsend shipwrights were able to offer repair and refitting at prices below those at Seattle, Bellingham and Anacortes boat yards.

“We smoked them bad,” Thompson said.

Led by Ernie Baird, the panel discussion was part of the Port Townsend Library’s Community Read program, which this year focuses on Greenlaw’s account of a sword-fishing trip out of Gloucester, Mass.

The annual Community Read event selects a book for the public to read and discuss, with presentations on the theme.

The book illustrates the gamble that commercial fishing entails: a large investment up front with no guarantee of return.

That it was financially feasible to buy a wooden fishing vessel in the 1970s, fix it up and make a living enticed many people into commercial fishing, Baird said.

“We worked for people whose single greatest asset was their boat,” Baird said.

“They were smart, they were tough and they watched us work and got in and did the dirty jobs.”

Jim Peacock was one of those who bought an old boat and fished it, he said.

One of his running partners on the fishing grounds was Mark Burn, who had a dream of owning a boat works, Peacock said.

Boat works in PT

At that time they set up a boat works in Port Townsend, the only functional boat works in the boat haven was Skookum Marine, which built fiberglass craft, Peacock said.

He and Burn, who hired Aubin and Knutsen, had six employees the first year, Peacock said, and 12 the next as vessel owners found their way to Port Townsend Bay from the Gulf of Alaska.

“There were 1,700 vessels, and half of the fleet were wood,” Baird said.

“The genius of these people was tapping a market that previously didn’t exist, and make it financially possible.

“There was a market and a revenue stream.”

Back then, however, there wasn’t a way to get big vessels out of the water, so Aubin said shipwrights had to construct parts in Port Townsend and haul them to Port Angeles to install.

Peacock and Burn’s boat works operated out of the old railroad engine house, the tallest and only building in the boat haven at the time, Aubin said.

The railroad tracks ran in front, so when there were cars on it waiting to be unloaded, the shipwrights, holding work materials, had to clamber over the couplings between them

“And you never knew when the train would start moving,” Aubin said.

Now a port commissioner, Thompson is considered the grandfather of free-lance boat builders, Baird said, meaning people who work out of their trucks.

Thompson said he blew into Port Townsend in 1974 and started working for the port, pumping gas and hauling boats out.

First Wooden Boat Festival

He recalled Burn arriving in town and Sam Connor holding the first Wooden Boat Festival in 1976.

The second year of the festival, it was preceded by a boat-building seminar by Bob Prothero, Thompson said, which led to the formation of the Northwest School of Wooden Boat Building.

After Knutsen worked for Peacock and Burn, who would have been at the program but was away on business, for six years, then he and Thompson formed the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-op with Mike Stone and Jim Lyons.

They started from scratch, Knutsen said, working out in the yard with a band saw — no shop, no building, no nothing.

He worked for 20 years before retiring from the co-op, which now has 12 members and employees up to 15 people.

Wooden boat building and repair also created a market for specialty wood.

Charlie Moore, a graduate of the first School of Wooden Boat Building class in 1981, told how he and Jim Ferris started Edensaw Woods by buying a truckload of Honduras mahogany.

“We took four cases of beer to the Town Tavern and asked people to help us unload this truckload of wood,” Moore said.

“Everyone helped up grow. We now have 34 living wage jobs.”

Baird said that between 1995 to 2004, when he sold Baird Boat Works, five of his crew got married, nine built or bought their own homes, 11 babies were born to families and five boats were built for personal use.

“That took a lot of dollars,” Baird said.

The shipwrights’ program, “Reeling Them In,” was recorded by PPTV and by the Jefferson County Historical Society.


Port Townsend/Jefferson County Reporter-Columnist Jennifer Jackson can be reached at 360-379-5688 or jjackson@olypen.com.

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