The Port Townsend Wooden Boat Fes­ti­val is the great­est cel­e­bra­tion of wooden boat­build­ing in the world.

Soundings - - Contents -

In Port Townsend, Wash­ing­ton, the world’s great­est cel­e­bra­tion of wooden boats has main­tained its joy­ous ex­u­ber­ance for 40 years.

Go at your own risk.

Story and pho­tos by Mary South

F or years I’d wanted to make the trek to the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Fes­ti­val. So as I squeezed my Mini rental into a tiny spot be­tween the cars crammed on both sides of the sloped road into town, I felt ready. Port Townsend Bay spread like a sparkling wel­come mat be­fore the brick Vic­to­rian sea­port be­low, and the snow-capped Cas­cade range rose from the far hori­zon.

Sun­set magazine called Port Townsend, Wash­ing­ton, “the Paris of the Pa­cific North­west,” but that seems like un­nec­es­sary hyperbole for a place of such unique charm. At the base of the hill, the ter­rain flat­tens to the shore and Wa­ter Street threads past gal­leries, gift shops and restau­rants, all tout­ing nau­ti­cal names or touches. The vibe is not Parisian so much as bohemian mar­itime.

In ad­di­tion to a mod­ern house­wares store, a small gourmet gro­cery and sev­eral hip-look­ing shops, there are used books, crys­tals and in­cense, and vin­tage col­lectibles — the town has an old hip­pie vibe. I was lured into Wil­liam James Book­seller, a marvelous shop of nar­row aisles and floor-to-ceil­ing shelves, by a savvy win­dow dis­play of nau­ti­cal books. Ten min­utes later I emerged with a copy of a 40-year-old edi­tion on buy­boats and a strong sense that I had nar­rowly missed go­ing home with a suit­case full of books and the need for a new wardrobe. Luck­ily, the 40th Wooden Boat Fes­ti­val beck­oned.

Ac­cord­ing to the North­west Mar­itime Cen­ter’s web­site, the Wooden Boat Fes­ti­val started “as a wild idea — a vi­sion of com­mu­nity and a life­style of ‘salt wa­ter hip­pies’ cen­tered on boats and the sea.” Roughly 2,000 peo­ple trav­eled to Port Townsend for the first Wooden Boat Fes­ti­val, many bring­ing boats and tools, to cel­e­brate the na­tion’s bud­ding wooden boat re­vival. It was a re­sound­ing suc­cess. The Wooden Boat Foun­da­tion and its fes­ti­val have con­tin­ued to grow, to­day of­fer­ing boat­build­ing classes, mar­itime skills and ma­rine ed­u­ca­tion to their com­mu­nity and vis­i­tors from around the world. The fes­ti­val fea­tures dozens of in­door and out­door demon­stra­tions, and pre­sen­ta­tions by wooden boat au­thor­i­ties and ad­ven­tur­ers. Thou­sands of peo­ple at­tend — some an­nu­ally — to see the boats, walk the docks and keep up on the lat­est innovations in boat­build­ing tech­niques and equip­ment.

More than 300 wooden ves­sels were on dis­play this time, and as I passed a work­bench where in­tri­cate ships in bot­tles were be­ing made and ex­ited to a crowded space over­look­ing the wa­ter, I could imag­ine that not much had changed over the years. Though the North­west Mar­itime Cen­ter’s fa­cil­ity is only a few years old, LED-cer­ti­fied and ab­so­lutely gor­geous, there is still a “salt­wa­ter hip­pie” feel­ing to the crowd, which ran the gamut from su­per-tat­tooed and pierced young sailors to white­bearded and pipe-smok­ing cap­tains look­ing like Cen­tral Cast­ing’s of­fer­ings for a Gor­ton’s Seafood com­mer­cial.

I stopped to ad­mire Greg Hat­ten’s beau­ti­ful Ob­ses­sion, a McKen­zi­estyle drift boat, which he had used to fish a dozen na­tional parks. He built his boat from African se­pele ma­hogany and Alaskan yel­low cedar. Hat­ten, a self-de­scribed steel­head junkie, says the boat is built for white-wa­ter ad­ven­ture and fly-fish­ing, but it’s also a thing of sim­ple beauty. Hat­ten was speak­ing later in the day, and I made a men­tal note to go if I could.

Mov­ing on through the crowded small-boat sec­tion, I ad­mired a Paul Gart­side-de­signed launch and a Co­sine Wherry that was strip-built from West­ern red cedar and Peru­vian black wal­nut. There were ca­noes, kayaks, dinghies — each lov­ingly hand­crafted, the sun glint­ing off var­nished thwarts and brass oar­locks.

When I had drooled enough in this lo­ca­tion, I pushed on to the docks and was re­warded with the sen­sa­tion of clouds part­ing (though there were none) and a heav­enly choir of an­gels singing: Point Hud­son Ma­rina was chock-a-block with wooden boats of ev­ery shape and size. Kayak­ers gave demon­stra­tions in the fair­ways; mu­sic drifted over the wa­ter, mingling with the smells of pop­corn and smok­ing grills. This was a fes­ti­val, all right.

A boat called Dragon­heart caught my eye. A 23-foot oceanic dory with a Ber­mu­dian-sloop rig, de­signed by Kit Africa and Jim Franken,

Dragon­heart was con­structed by stu­dents and com­mu­nity mem­bers at the North­west School of Wooden Boat Build­ing in Port Had­lock, Wash­ing­ton. Its Com­mu­nity Boat Project works with lo­cal schools to get stu­dents cred­its for mar­itime-based pro­grams and wel­comes com­mu­nity in­volve­ment. The school is com­mit­ted to so­cial jus­tice, com­mu­nity-sup­ported and ex­pe­ri­en­tial ed­u­ca­tion, environmental sus­tain-

abil­ity and youth em­pow­er­ment. Dragon­heart was on the hard, which showed off her stout and hand­some con­struc­tion. Stu­dents ea­gerly an­swered ques­tions for spec­ta­tors.

The range of boats at the Port Townsend show is truly won­der­ful. I loved Gin­ger, a 24-foot elec­tric power cruiser with a 6-foot beam, built by Dan Pence in homage to “clas­sic North­west boats of the 1920s.”

Rip­tide, a 47-foot bridge deck cruiser built by the Scherzer Broth­ers in Seat­tle in 1927, was a beauty. Sofia, a 41½-foot North Sea trawler with an 11½-foot beam, was de­signed by Wil­liam Gar­den and built by Gor­don Hall in 1967, and she looked ready for se­ri­ous voy­ag­ing. One of my fa­vorite boats in the show was Trix­ter, a cedar-on-oak 34-footer built in 1934 by the Prothero Broth­ers of Seat­tle. Once an Alaskan mail­boat, she’s now a fam­ily cruiser with a com­fort­able raised sa­loon and fore and aft cab­ins.

If there’s a rock star at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Fes­ti­val, it’s Sam Devlin, and rightly so. Devlin pop­u­lar­ized the stitch-and-glue method of build­ing and has cre­ated more than 472 de­signs, rang­ing from small row­boats to a 63-foot Sock­eye cruiser. His boats stretched along the first third of the North Dock: Cut­lass, a 2003 Wom­pass Cat;

Ibis, a 1988 clas­sic sedan trawler; In­tegrity, a 1993 Czarinna 35 twin-diesel fan­tail cruiser; Mr. Mal­lard, a 1983 Win­ter Wren; Nil Des­peran­dum, a 2011 gaff rig­ger built from a 1983 de­sign … and there were oth­ers. His sec­tion of the show was clearly a fan fa­vorite. I hung out for a while in the cock­pit of Zelda Belle, a 24-foot Surf Scoter, and caught up with Devlin as a steady stream of ad­mir­ers came by to shake his hand and talk boats. Some­one brought him a six-pack of craft beer as thanks for a bit of ad­vice. An­other fel­low, a for­mer boat­builder in Hawaii who had moved to the North­west, bartered a stack of air-dried ex­otic hard­wood for a Devlin de­sign he cov­eted.

One of the many of­fer­ings that caught my eye was Dogged, a 22foot, Devlin-de­signed-and-built Surf Scoter that started life in 1988 as Coy­ote. In 2016 her new own­ers took her back to Devlin for a re­fit. He pulled the diesel-pow­ered sail drive and added a bracket and outboard, in­creas­ing her top speed from 6½ knots to 19 knots. Devlin own­ers are loyal, and most have their boats main­tained by Devlin (and his two sons). Many re­turn for new cus­tom builds when their needs change.

Th­ese days, Devlin is re­think­ing his busi­ness — try­ing, like all of us, to find the right bal­ance be­tween work and life. Of course, as is the case with gifted peo­ple, work is his life, but go­ing for­ward he sees him­self fo­cus­ing on one or two builds a year. There are enough Devlin de­signs out there to keep the busi­ness hum­ming along on re­fits and main­te­nance, and he thinks it would be nice to spend a lit­tle more time afloat, en­joy­ing the great Pa­cific North­west wa­ters more of­ten from one of his own builds, with his fam­ily.

On my way out of the show, I stop by the Race to Alaska dis­play, which fea­tures sev­eral of the small boats that com­peted in the sec­ond race this year. No mo­tors, no sup­port, just a 750-mile, any­thing-goes race. I buy a jersey and won­der if I could get away from the of­fice long enough to com­pete next year. The Pa­cific North­west would make a stun­ning back­drop for an in­sane chal­lenge like the R2AK.

Well, a girl can dream, and the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Fes­ti­val will al­ways have more than one to of­fer. Port Townsend Wooden Boat Fes­ti­val, (360) 385-3628. nwmar­

The range of boats at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Fes­ti­val is vast. From op­po­site left are Sam Devlin’s In­tegrity, a 1993 Czarinna 35 twindiesel fan­tail cruiser; a Co­sine Wherry; Sofia, a North Sea trawler; and Dragon­heart, a com­mu­nity-built oceanic...

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