This Pacific Northwest workboat conversion is enduring and endearing
It’s nearly a law of nature: A boat voyeur’s stroll through the Boat Haven in Port Townsend, Washington, stops on B-Dock. That’s where Petrel is tied up, and that’s where anyone, even folks who don’t know much about boats, pause to stare. She’s a converted salmon troller of modest size at 42 feet overall — a vessel so cute, so right, so honest, she’s like that perfect little boat a kindergartner might draw from imagination.
There’s the prominent bow with a massive, heavy-duty windlass that carries hundreds of feet of galvanized chain on the foredeck; the imposing trolling poles lashed astride her mast abaft the classic fishboat wheelhouse; a springy sheer line that is accentuated by a varnished caprail and a light gray rubbing strake; and a pinched stern that makes her a double-ender in the Scandinavian tradition. Conceived and built for the waters of the northeastern Pacific, Petrel is also in fine fettle despite her semibiblical age of 86 years.
She’s owned by Chris Grace, a retired commercial real estate developer who used her to cruise with his wife, Kathy, a nurse, on Puget Sound, in the San Juan and Gulf Islands and up to Desolation Sound in British Columbia. He calls Petrel the “center of our boating universe,” which is a statement of some import, given that they also owned and cruised a 39-foot Concordia yawl and raced an Etchells.
But in the end, Petrel, with her no-nonsense workboat qualities, proved to be the boat best suited for cruising these beautiful but challenging waters. They’re placid one moment and rough the next, churned by wind that runs counter to some rapacious currents. “Sailing is great, but it is easier and better to explore [these waters] while motoring,” Grace says. “Besides, we wanted to stay out longer than one month, and that’s just hard on a sailboat.”
OK, so power beats sail in this scenario. But why select a converted workboat with limited comforts and one that’s built of wood, to boot? “We didn’t do it for wood worship but because we wanted to be practical,” Grace explains. They looked at Grand Banks, Romsdal trawlers and a William Garden design, but Petrel got the nod, in part because her previous owner, who restored and converted her from a Pacific salmon troller into a cruising boat, refastened her Port Orford cedar planks with bronze. Another reason was her size. “When you think living quarters, you always want bigger,” Grace says. “But when you think about managing and maintaining a boat alone or with two, you want smaller, and 35 to 45 feet is ideal for a couple to handle.
“I wanted a boat that I can stare at when I row away from it in an anchorage,” Grace chuckles over a glass of single malt. “Like anything that’s been well designed and made, Petrel follows the Golden Rule. Take a Mustang P52 fighter plane or a Jaguar E-Type sports car. Really, what would you change? These are timeless designs that conform to the rules of aesthetics.”
It is doubtful that aesthetics played a leading role when the vessel was designed and built in 1928 in Astoria, Oregon, by Matt Tolonen at the Columbia Boat Building Co. Builders also were designers then, but that job was not as fancy as a yacht designer’s. “They made half models and later also drawings and [just] built boats,” says John Norgaard, a second-generation immigrant from Norway and a retired fisherman in the area, who learned the craft from his father. “A guy would come and say, ‘I want a boat like [this], only two feet longer and a foot wider,’ and that’s what he’d get.” Petrel’s first owner was Matt Sorvaag, a sailor by trade, also from Norway, who is said to have fished her until his death in 1950.
And fish, so goes the yarn, loved Petrel. Why that is, nobody really can explain. Perhaps they fancied a boat that slices through the water efficiently with a modest and clean wake; Petrel had the inside track with her pointy stern, which takes a page from the tradition of the Vikings. Key characteristics of Viking vessels were seaworthiness, speed and benign behavior in the difficult conditions Petrel might have found during her work life, crossing the treacherous bar of the Columbia River or on her far-ranging trips into the Gulf of Alaska.
“These boats were built to pack fish and take the weather, no matter where,” says Norgaard. “They had living quarters and fish holds that packed ice and were large enough to stay out for days at a time.” Later, he says, full sterns became common because boats had to carry more load. However, as a yacht, Petrel’s pointy end puts her in good company with designs by L. Francis Herreshoff, Bruce King and Ray Hunt or the seminal cruising boat of the 1970s, the Westsail 32, which is linked to Eric, designed by William Atkin in 1928, the year Petrel was built. Atkin, in turn, was influenced by the double-ended pilot boats designed by fellow Norwegian Colin Archer. Later, Bill Crealock and Bob Perry continued this school of thought with stout cruising boats, such as Pacific Seacrafts and Tayanas.
Life on board Petrel moves at a measured pace, between 7 and 8 knots. She’s been repowered a couple of times since her launch, when she was fitted with an Atlas Imperial 3-cylinder, 30-hp diesel. Now she’s propelled by a 100-hp 371 Detroit Diesel that will take about 2 gallons per hour for doing its job reliably and with a workboat soundtrack. It is installed under the wheelhouse and accessed through a hatch in the sole. The helm station is to port, but the large windows offer 270-degree visibility and an outward-opening door on each side. These provide quick access to the side decks — critically important while fishing for easy communication between skipper and crew, which consisted of one deckhand or maybe a couple of family members.
Accommodations are spartan but adequate. Access is a concession to Petrel’s workboat origin and requires climbing down steep ladders, either into the crew quarters in the bow, which consists of two bunk beds and a stand-up desk, or into the former fish hold aft, where the galley and dinette are located. The ladders and the lack of a dedicated saloon for lounging with water views, not to mention the absence of a bow thruster and joystick, are conspicuous differences between Petrel and other trawler yachts. The head and shower are “upstairs” in the wheelhouse, to port, abaft the steering stand. A neat workboat detail that Grace likes to demonstrate is the drop-down chart board, which is fastened to the overhead.
Grace doesn’t mind picking up sandpaper and a varnish brush or scraping the bottom when Petrel is hauled out. “He spent a ton of time upgrading the boat,” notes Ted Pike, the owner of Annie Too, a Bill Lapworth sloop, and a salesman for Edensaw, a wood supplier in the Pacific Northwest. “Her workboat layout might be a bit awkward for leisure, but she has a sweet motion that makes her comfortable underway.”
Stopping off Port Hadlock, Grace lowers Petrel’s impressive trolling poles 40 to 50 degrees and deploys stabilizers suspended from each pole to ride 10 to 15 feet below the surface, reducing the rolling motion. ”They increase the beam of the boat and its stability,” he says.
During fishing duty the stabilizers would be closer to the hull because several trolling lines would be rigged farther up on the poles, each set to different depths, weighed down by a “cannon ball” of lead and carrying several “spreads” with leader, lure and hook. Tag lines or inhauls would be run to the stern, where the trollerman would reel in the catch.
But those working days are long gone, although Petrel still carries a workboat permit. It comes in handy for jumping the line at the Ballard Locks in Seattle on the way to the Lake Union Wooden Boat Festival. She has been a fixture at such events and has won several awards for best conversion. But that’s just gravy because she’s cruising between 60 and 90 days a year, which means she’s a frequent guest in many places. And sometimes getting there is just as tough as it would have been getting battered in a gale with a hold full of fish or negotiating the bar. “I remember one rough trip to Friday Harbor,” Kathy says. “Chris was just climbing down into the forecabin with Bones [the couple’s Jack Russell terrier] under one arm, and just as he let go of the ladder we took a hit.” Without a hand for himself, he went flying and landed hard. The pooch was fine, but the skipper was dinged up. Nothing bad, but the incident and the bandage made for a good yarn at the dock. And Petrel? She kept calm and carried on, none the worse for wear.
Her name references a seabird in the southern latitudes that travels far to chase fish. Like these daring fliers, Petrel is highly adapted to her environment, with a form that follows function. But she also has a knack for finding owners who render the necessary care, which is why she’s still kicking after all these years. At the time of this writing, she was about to leave the Boat Haven in Port Townsend to move to Bainbridge Island, where her next owner plans to keep her. Though she won’t be trolling for salmon anymore, her conversion hasn’t diminished her character. She can still take what the ocean throws at her while pleasing connoisseurs and looky-loos alike with her traditional features and proportions. And don’t forget the kids, who will always draw boats like her when their fantasies are spilled on a plain sheet of paper.
LOA: 42 feet
LWL: 38 feet
BEAM: 12 feet
Draft: 6 feet
DISPLACEMENT: 26 tons
TANKAGE: 550 gallons fuel, 300 gallons water
PROPULSION: 100-hp 371 Detroit Diesel
YEAR BUILT: 1928
BUILDER: Matt Tolonen/Columbia Boat Building Co., Astoria, Oregon
December 2014 issue