To hell with Covid, they did it anyway. Erik Brown, 30, and his wife, Alyce Flanagan, 30, decided to pool their sailing competence and boatbuilding skills to open Left Coast Charters at Boat Haven in Port Townsend, Washington. Blending personal preferences with an occupation is a dream for many, especially during a pandemic that prompted many people to make a thorough evaluation of priorities. But it’s also a leap of faith, which can be daunting because of the imponderables.
Brown, from New Haven, Connecticut, and Flanagan, from a prominent Northwest schooner family, picked a business that’s proverbially right in their wheelhouse. Both sailed most of their lives. Both are licensed captains. Both crewed on boats big and small, fast and slow. Both have been working as sailing instructors, coaches, deckhands and mates on large vessels, including the 70-foot cutter Geronimo of the St. George School in Newport, Rhode Island, and the Hudson River sloop Clearwater that was owned by the late folksinger and environmental activist Pete Seeger.
The boat that floats their new business is Katie M. She’s a replica of the Breck Marshall, a traditional New England catboat that takes guests on short sails at Mystic Seaport, Connecticut. From an operator’s perspective this type of vessel is practical, sturdy and capable while easy to handle with a simple main-sail-only gaff rig. Fishermen of the mid-to-late 19th century who worked the skinny waters around Cape Cod appreciated their shallow draft, their large cockpits, their cargo carrying capacity and their stability derived from a wide beam. While catboats no longer fish, all these qualities make them popular for leisure sailing and daysailing charters.
With an overall length of 20 feet, a small house and large cockpit, ample freeboard and a tall rig, Katie M is “a modified Crosby design,” as Brown explains, referring to the Crosby Boat Shop in Osterville on Cape Cod that turned out thousands of these sturdy vessels since the 1850s. However, Katie M never tasted the waters of the Atlantic as she was built over several years by students at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding and launched for a private owner in 2009. Her traditional construction used a purple heart backbone, Western red cedar planking over white oak frames, steam-bent oak cabin house sides, yellow cedar decking and sapele trim.
“The boat performs its duties so well, I can’t think of a better one,” Brown said, carefully coiling the three-strand rope of peak and throat halyards as Katie M gets underway. Mostly standing at the aft end of the cockpit, he handles the mainsheet and steers the boat with the tiller between his knees to leave space for his guests, up to six of them for a charter. Passengers can drive if they wish, but most will spread out around the cockpit and a walnut table that is mounted on the centerboard trunk with a pot of fresh flowers, which also is Katie M’s clinometer. If the flora start sliding, it’s time to back off. But that rarely happens during a leisurely summer sail along Port Townsend’s eclectic waterfront, drifting in and out of coves, gliding past docks and old brick buildings with faded murals.
Brown, who jokingly admitted he’s “not good at having a boss,” found Katie M through the son of her previous owner, a friend and fellow wooden-boat enthusiast. At the time, Brown was attending Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and had restored his previous boat, the 30-foot Lyle Hess cutter Kirin. In Katie M he recognized an opportunity to practice and refine the boatbuilding skills he started to acquire at the Sound School in New Haven, where his favorite hangout was the boat shop. Later, he apprenticed at Fast Forward Composites in Bristol, Rhode Island, at the Seattle Center of Wooden Boats with Robert D’Arcy in Port Townsend, and at the Port Townsend Foundry, where he learned to cast bronze fittings he otherwise couldn’t afford.
These experiences laid the foundation for the work he and Alyce had to perform on Katie M, which had been seeing little use lately and was getting long in the tooth. Starting in March of 2021, they frantically toiled for two and a half months to get their ride ready for the season. With help from local e-propulsion expert Chris Brignoli, they added a high-tech touch with a Torqeedo 4-kW electric pod drive and a 48-volt lithium-ion battery with a capacity of 5 kWh. The system offers plenty of juice to get in and out of the marina and also charges a 12-volt AGM house battery through a converter.
“The boat had no bilge pumps initially, and the hull showed signs of worm damage,” Brown says. “I had to do 60 Dutchmen patches and used epoxy to fill the boreholes. It was like filling teeth, but necessary to ensure the planks are sound.” He also built a new barndoor rudder from plywood and coated the deck and hull with Pettit EZ-Poxy, a one-part polyurethane topside and deck enamel.
The bar for Katie M’s appearance was set by the expectations of the Flanagan family, who own the shipshape 81-foot schooner Alcyone, built in 1956 by Frank Prothero in Seattle. She logged more than 100,000 miles, but still looks as if she just was launched. To the Flanagans, maintenance chores such as painting, varnishing, rigging and making sails has always been a family job.
Katie M wasn’t designed for the deep waters of the Pacific Northwest, but she quickly has become a fixture on the Port Townsend waterfront. And even with the Covid-induced cancellation of the Wooden Boat Festival, Port Townsend’s main tourist draw, this daysailing outfit continues to take out guests who want to see the town from a different perspective. John “Sugar” Flanagan, Alyce’s father, is an icon of the local sailing scene, who with his wife, Leslie, used to run charters on Alcyone, plus extended family trips along the West Coast and across the Pacific. “Right now Port Townsend is becoming more of a tourist town, so every year the likelihood of making daysailing work is going up,” he says. “Erik has a pretty nice niche there. It’s a really comfortable boat. In a good breeze it’s not going to heel up or get spray. The electric engine, which he was leery of in the beginning, worked out really well.”
At the conclusion of their first season, Brown and Flanagan seemed happy, claiming they managed to recoup their initial investment in the lower five figures for boat and materials. They also said they kept a lid on expenditures and now focus on increasing the visibility of their business and improving the boat. “We’ll invest in search engine optimization and take it from there,” Alyce says. Brown is contemplating replacing the tiller with wheel steering during the offseason and ordering a new main that is specifically cut to better suit the boat’s current work.
Schedule permitting, Flanagan and Brown still sneak out on Katie M for some personal time. They’ll head to one of the nearby anchorages for an overnighter or shred Dungeness Bay on hydrofoiling windsurfers. For these millennials, making the leap from captaining boats to running their own sailing business was a logical step. But staying true to their philosophy, they’ve made the experience more than just work.
This article was originally published in the December 2021 issue.