My Checkered History with Boats and Shipyards
I was about 5 the first time I can remember a shipyard, smelling of oakum and Old Sailor copper paint.
I was born and raised in Petersburg, Alaska in the southeastern panhandle of the state. My father owned a machine shop on a wooden barge tied up next to the harbor. That machine shop had been helping to maintain the sizable local fishing fleet for over forty years when Dad bought it in 1969. Every ten years or so, the machine shop barge was hauled out of the water at the shipyard in Petersburg, a covered marine railway, to scrape the mussels and barnacles off the bottom, and to reapply the copper paint.
I remember the smells, the cavernous space, and the guys that were doing the scraping and painting talking about the draft, and their chances of being drafted.
Over the next seven years or so, I would spend time down on the machine shop barge after school, sweeping up around the lathes, and sorting out the miscellaneous copper and bronze scrap from the rest of it so we could ship it out and get paid for it.
Again what stands out most is the smells. The fishing fleet was still mostly wood, and the combination of decades of oil, diesel, fish gurry, unwashed fishermen, and coffee all soaked into the very skin and bones of the boats and made for a unique smell that still triggers memories 45 years later.
Around 1980, Dad sold the machine shop, and also at that time the old covered marine ways and shipyard was sold to the City of Petersburg to make way for a new harbor. This prompted my father to build another marine railway about three-quarters of a mile south of the old location. I was drafted to assist, and at the age of 13 spent some time operating a shovel, drilling the hundreds of holes in the steel I-beams of the cradle for grease zerk fittings, and drilling pilot holes for the placement of the cast steel wheels.
The new shipyard location was under construction for three years, after which Dad leased, and eventually sold it to Petersburg Shipwrights Inc. in 1984. With the exception of the rock contractor and the guy who drove piling, Dad did the construction himself, with my inexpert teenage help.
In 1982, at 14, I spent a month and a half in the summer working on a fish tender, the F/V Arctic. It was a 50 foot wood halibut schooner, a miniature of the ones from the Puget Sound fleet that came to the gulf of Alaska every spring to fish halibut. We were buying troll caught king salmon and coho for a cold storage located in Kake, Alaska. Those week long trips were my first experience living and working on a wood boat.
By 1990 I had graduated high school, tried college, and finished a two year trade school for running offset printing presses. I had also fished several of the one and two day derby style halibut openings, as well as trolling for salmon for part of one summer. I was hooked on the fishing lifestyle. I bought my first boat before I had finished my last year of trade school. It was the F/V Elding, a 36 foot double ended wood troller built in 1930. It had been a first boat for a lot of people and had been worked hard. I however, had an amazing mechanic available in my Dad, and he got the Elding shipshape and fishable. I hand trolled in the summers, and worked as a deckhand in other fisheries the rest of the year.
In 1992 I sold the Elding, and bought a fiberglass gillnetter and salmon gillnet permit. By 1999 I was married with a young son, and I had two realizations. One, I couldn’t catch my own ass with a handful of hooks. I was a lousy fisherman. And, two, I didn’t like the long absences from my family. So in December of 1999 I went to work for Fred Paulson at Petersburg Shipwrights Inc. on the same marine railway I had helped build 20 years before.
In 2002 Fred sold the business and shortly thereafter under the new owner I was running the winch to haul and launch the boats and doing the painting and a lot of fiberglass work. There were some wood projects that came through, and I learned from every one. By my final year there I was corking, and assisting with plank and bow stem replacements.
In the spring of 2007 I bought two covered railways and a shop located in Wrangell, Alaska, about 40 miles south of Petersburg. The facility was built in 1928 and purchased by Olaf Hansen Sr., who operated the Hansen Boat Shop, eventually passing the business to his son Olaf Jr. Ownership of the yard passed to Wrangell Shipyard Inc. in 1993 and this was the company I purchased it from.
Now I was in it up to my eyeballs. For the first 12 years, we had a crew of 8 to 12 people doing just about everything that could be done on a boat except for engine repair and refrigeration. I was lucky enough to have several very talented local wood boat shipwrights work for me before they retired, and I absorbed all I could.
In 2019 I made a conscious choice to downsize my crew and project load to spend more time doing what I love, which is wood boats and interiors, and less time supervising large crews. I have been lucky enough that this has worked out very well for us. While we still do fiberglass work, glossy topside paint jobs and basic maintenance to pay the bills, I get to spend more time rolling oakum and getting wood shavings everywhere.
I bought a couple wood project boats to work on, one a 42 foot Ed Monk Sr. designed cruiser built by Tripple & Everett in 1962. That’s what I work on to calm my soul. This spring I was lucky, and was able to work on a half dozen wood fishing boats getting ready for the up coming seasons. While they are out working, I content myself with my projects. In the fall I’ve got several wood boat repair projects already lined up, and my shipyard smells like wood and oakum and bottom paint and linseed oil.