Turning off Channel Road just before it crosses the new bridge that separates the saltwater of Deer Harbor from the silted Cayou Lagoon, the car stops under a weathered sign that reads: Deer Harbor Boatworks. Nothing here follows a common script: There’s no website, yard office, hoist or Travelift. Instead, vessels are hauled and launched on a concrete ramp with a hydraulic trailer, courtesy of the ebb at spring tide that sucks out most of the water.
Beyond the main building that doubles as the owner’s residence, Quonset Hut-styled work tents, storage containers and boats jostle for space on this tightly packed one-acre lot. Being of modest size and older vintage, the vessels don’t qualify as gold-platers, but are far removed from the broken-up derelicts that are also present here, as if they were installed with artistic intent.
“I moved to Orcas in 1977 to build a 25-foot Atkin design that was pointy on both ends,” says Michael Durland, 69, the owner of Deer Harbor Boatworks. Born in South Dakota, he came to these islands via Idaho and Seattle before building boats under the tutelage of Cecil Lange, the founder of Cape George Marine Works in Port Townsend, Washington. Before then, Durland served in the U.S. Coast Guard in New London, Connecticut, and crewed on one of the sailing team’s Luders 44s. He served for two years and then took a 28-foot Buchanan sloop around the Caribbean and up the East Coast. He crossed the Pacific to Hawaii and back. And during the 1990s he spent winters in the Virgin Islands running charters on a 55-foot Piver trimaran that he co-owned.
Tall, tanned and strong with a mop of silver hair, Durland has an unhurried manner that matches the vibe of the yard he built in 1986, before the San Juan Islands became a magnet for tourists (up to a million annually) and a home for retirees and Zoom workers.
Not all who come here are moneyed, and some who need work done on their boats can’t afford regular yard rates. Yet Durland does what he can to help them out. “These people always wanted to work on their own boats. It was hard years ago, but now it’s nearly impossible,” he says, in some part because yard operators are wary of liability issues if DIY customers violate rules by not tarping or vacuum-sanding. “I like to see people pursuing their dream of owning a boat in an environment increasingly stacked against them.”
Two of his clients are Leanne Sarco and Frazer O’Hara. With Durland by their side, they patched the seams of La Casita, their cedar-planked Richardson 31 Express Cruiser from the 1960s. Durland also helped them get the boat’s old Chrysler 318 gas engines running again. Durland finds parts, teaches them how to clean spark plugs and rebuild the carburetor. “I don’t think we’d be on the water without him,” says O’Hara.
Until 2003, the yard had three hired hands, but Durland said it wasn’t worth hustling jobs to keep everyone busy. “It was easier to scale back,” he says. He now handles service calls, small refits, wooden-boat repairs and engine overhauls. Another reason to downsize was the change in local boating demographics. Clients with smaller, older boats who needed repairs were replaced by owners with deep pockets—many “from the high-tech world,” says Durland—who ran new vessels with powerful engines.
Durland also demolishes and discards derelict boats for San Juan County and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Sometimes thieves strip the condemned boats, thus preventing him from extracting anything of value for his stock of vintage parts, which lends Deer Harbor Boatworks a bit of a U-Pick aura. Cataloging all the bits and selling them online is a monster task, neither he nor his partner, Kathleen Fennel, 60, want to tackle yet.
They met in the Caribbean where Fennel, a trained geologist from Iowa, hired on as a chef on Durland’s charter boat. Since coming to Orcas in 2000, she’s blended in with the locals and keeps active in the community. Soon after she moved here, Fennel founded Deer Harbor’s Wooden Boat Rendezvous, which became a runaway success. “It’s a nice location. People either love us or hate us,” she says, hinting that running a boatyard during a period of gentrification has challenges.
Durland’s boatbuilding skills command respect, but he’s no stranger to controversy. A newspaper story from 2011 reported his skirmish with the Orcas fire chief about access to a water source (formerly his neighbor’s pond) for fire suppression. He took the matter all the way to the State Supreme Court but was rebuffed. “Things have settled down, but you never know who will pop up next with complaints against an ugly boatyard in a residential neighborhood,” says Durland.
Running this yard as they do, she says, is not just a job. It’s a life. Coco and Andy are pygmy goats that control the vegetation and contribute manure that gets composted for fertilizer. “Weed whacking got cumbersome and expensive,” Fennel says. “Goats cost less and take care of the growth, just not instantly.”
Classic woodies remain a strong presence at the yard: There’s Intrepid, Henry Ford’s Eight-Meter; Flirt, an International One Design; Sweetie, an M-20 Scow that was built for the estate of industrialist Henry Kaiser; and Challenge, a 1934 Second-Rule Six-Meter that Durland restored after trading an outboard motor for the boat.
As for the future of the yard, the couple is optimistic, if a bit vague. “The key for a small business like ours is being flexible and recognizing the ebb and the flow, allotting time accordingly,” says Fennel.However, neither she nor Durland deny the challenges ahead. In addition to environmental regulations, boatyard liability insurance rates are creeping up. And big yards on the mainland compete for customers, while operations in the islands change hands. Jensen’s in Friday Harbor, in business since 1910, was acquired by the Port, which turned it over to a management company. Down the road from Deer Harbor Boatworks, the sale of West Sound Marina is pending. “Small boatyards will be in the hands of large corporations once the owners retire, as there aren’t many options for keeping them open,” Durland says. “If we ever sell, it’ll never continue to be a boatyard, unless as a nonprofit.”
A sale, however, is not imminent, they insist, because the couple is happy here, in a yard that strives to keep the lights on for boat owners of modest means. “A 1,500-square-foot house on the water with a shop and a dock—that does not exist anymore,” says Fennel.
“If Deer Harbor went out of business it would be a pretty big loss for the boating community,” says Ward Fay, the director of the Wooden Boat Society who also runs a daysailing business on a 1948 wooden Blanchard sloop that recently received bow surgery from Durland at his eccentric little yard. Says Fay, “You kind of wonder how long it can last.”
This article was originally published in the September 2021 issue.