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