Shoptalk with Lee San­di­fur

In­ter­view with long­time em­ployee at Devlin De­sign­ing Boat Builders in Olympia, Wash­ing­ton—by way of New York City.

Passage Maker - - Shop Talk -

ee San­di­fur moved from Man­hat­tan to the Pa­cific North­west to be­come a boat­builder. He already had a suc­cess­ful busi­ness, but it wasn’t his call­ing, this was. Read about how Lee came to Devlin De­sign­ing Boat Builders, and what he still dreams about build­ing to­day.

What is your back­ground in boat­ing?

I grew up in San Fran­cisco and I joined the Sea Scout ship, Flying Cloud, at the age of 13. The next five years of week­ends and sum­mers I spent sail­ing, row­ing, and rac­ing on the Sea Scout 30-foot navy whale­boat, White Cloud. We were moored in Aquatic Park next to Fisherman’s Wharf. One of the spon­sors of our ship owned a Sparkman & Stephens 62-foot yawl called Good News. He took all eight boys from our Sea Scout group on a week-long cruise in the Pa­cific Ocean off New­port Har­bor, and on sails around San Fran­cisco Bay where I of­ten saw Baruna and Ori­ent sail­ing. Part of the re­quire­ments to be­come the Sea Scout equiv­a­lent of an Ea­gle Scout (Quar­ter­mas­ter Sea Ex­plorer) was to su­per­vise a haul-out. I did that for the 30-footer and re­paired our two lap­strake dinghies. All our boats were wood. At the time I didn’t re­al­ize the pro­found ef­fect this teenage boat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence would have on the rest of my life.

What was your next step to­ward get­ting into boat­build­ing?

Fast for­ward 30 years and I’m liv­ing and work­ing in New York for a ra­dio talk show host and health guru. I hadn’t been boat­ing in years, but I saw a 13-foot sail­boat for sale on a sub­ur­ban lawn and bought it on the spot. Next, I started go­ing to boat shows and mari­nas.

The Borders book­store chain had a

large store in the base­ment of the World Trade Cen­ter. In the boat­ing sec­tion of the mag­a­zine racks I saw the ti­tle Pas­sage­Maker, a fledg­ling mag­a­zine at the time. In the open­ing letters to the ed­i­tor I saw a pic­ture of a pocket pas­sage maker made in Fern­dale, Wash­ing­ton. It was a 26-foot dou­ble-ended fiber­glass diesel cruiser. I started read­ing ev­ery word of ev­ery is­sue of the mag­a­zine and dis­cerned that Wash­ing­ton State had a lot of diesel trawler boat­build­ing go­ing on and that the North­west was also a much-touted cruis­ing ground. I went to the Annapolis boat show and met Bill and Lau­rene Par­la­tore at the Pas­sage­Maker booth. At the time I fig­ured that trawler own­ers would find a good vi­ta­min line use­ful to keep nour­ished on ex­tended cruises and was con­sid­er­ing run­ning ads for my healthy vi­ta­min sup­ple­ments. Bill and Lau­rene

were very help­ful and pleas­ant, and even though I never fol­lowed through with ads, I was swept up in their en­thu­si­asm for boat­ing.

Pretty soon I called the Fern­dale boat­builder that was pro­filed in the mag­a­zine and in­quired about work­ing for them. The owner was re­tired but said he’d show me around if I came out for a visit.

The next thing I did was unimag­in­able. I asked my wife if she’d mind start­ing life all over again in Wash­ing­ton. I put in my three-month no­tice on my well-pay­ing job in New York, we gave away most of our pos­ses­sions, and put the re­main­ing things in our car and drove to Belling­ham. We ar­rived with only the Fern­dale builder’s phone num­ber but im­me­di­ately fell in love with the North­west.

Sev­eral months passed and no one hired me once they saw a re­sume with three col­lege de­grees and no boat­build­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. I drove down to the Seat­tle boat show, and on one ex­hibit there were pic­tures of two beau­ti­ful boats and a note that said they could be seen at the in-wa­ter por­tion of the show. So I got on the shut­tle bus to the dock at Lake Union. When I ar­rived, I im­me­di­ately found the beau­ti­ful pas­sage mak­ers made by Sam Devlin. One was a 32-foot Black Crown de­sign and the other, a 38-foot pilothouse trawler, Gol­ly­wob­bler. I went back to Belling­ham and told my wife I’d just seen the pret­ti­est boats of the show and that I’d like to work in Olympia where they were made. I was sure from my sev­eral failed at­tempts at get­ting work that there would be no use ap­ply­ing for a job. My wife in­sisted I send Sam Devlin an email so I did. This time no re­sume. In­stead I sim­ply said: “I never get sick, I will clean toi­lets, I can sand all day, and I’d be happy to do all the jobs no one else wants to do. Oh, and I love your boats.” I got a call back by Sam, an in­ter­view, and two weeks later I was a boat­builder.

if they’d be will­ing to take a tour of the boat with me right then be­fore the show opened. They agreed. After the walk-through they in­vited Sam and me to a Pas­sage­Maker party that evening and asked me to in­tro­duce Sam to them at that time. I was bub­bling over when I told Sam and he agreed to go. That meet­ing led to Sam’s first ar­ti­cle in the mag­a­zine fea­tur­ing the Sock­eye 42, John D. Bosler. That con­nec­tion led to fu­ture ar­ti­cles, in­clud­ing one on my fa­vorite top­ics, small pas­sage mak­ers.

And to­day....?

That was 19 years ago. I was thrown im­me­di­ately into as­sist­ing the shop fore­man with a 25-foot sail­boat build. There were only three em­ploy­ees, in­clud­ing the fore­man. I could see I was in way over my head. I picked out one of Sam’s de­signs and asked if I could build it in my spare time to teach my­self what I needed to know. Sam gave me a space in which to work and I built a 15 foot Egret sail­boat, which I own and use to this day. (You can see me and my boat on YouTube—Lee San­di­fur’s Egret). The first sev­eral years I cleaned toi­lets, sanded all day, and be­came a su­perb mixer of epoxy. Over time, I gained solid car­pen­try skills, hav­ing as­sisted in the build­ing of many boats, and have built some by my­self, in­clud­ing Sam’s own Can­dle­fish 13.

As time passed Sam lost his of­fice help. It was only a part-time job. I re­minded Sam of my New York ex­pe­ri­ence when I was run­ning an of­fice and ware­house for the health guru’s vi­ta­min line. Over the next sev­eral years I grad­u­ally came to work full time in the of­fice han­dling all the or­ders for home-built boat plans, phone calls, and do­ing some ac­count­ing work. More re­cently I’ve added web­site work and pho­to­graphic doc­u­men­ta­tion of all our builds. Oc­ca­sion­ally I do bright work for sev­eral of our boats or gussy a boat up for a boat show.

What’s your ul­ti­mate boat?

Over these nearly two decades Sam and I have had many dis­cus­sions about dream boats. I’m fas­ci­nated with dou­bleended de­signs, es­pe­cially the USCG 36-foot dou­ble-ended res­cue boats that pa­trolled San Fran­cisco Bay when I was a boy. I wanted a very wor­thy and ocean-ca­pa­ble pas­sage maker. With that, Sam sketched my per­fect boat when he de­signed plans for the Shear­wa­ter 38. She is a beau­ti­ful dou­ble-ended, 38-foot mo­tor­sailer. In the mean­time, I own a 22-foot mo­tor­sailer that Sam built in 1981. Sam’s son Cooper found her for me on Craig’s List.

What’s the best part of these past 19 years work­ing with Devlin?

It’s a joy to do work you love. Work­ing at Devlin Boat has been a real dream come true that I never saw com­ing.

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