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40 years of a wild idea

For 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.

The range of boats at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival is vast.

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 white-bearded 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 McKenzie-style 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.

Sam Devlin’s Integrity, a 1993 Czarinna 35 twin-diesel fantail cruiser.

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 sustainability 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.

A Cosine Wherry.
Dragonheart, a community-built oceanic dory with a Bermuda rig.

One of the many offerings that caught my eye was Dogged, a 22-foot, 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. 

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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.

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue.