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Stephen and Debbie Gratton had sailed over 70,000 miles in their Oyster 53, Amelie—including a circumnavigation with the 2012 Oyster World Rally, two trips to French Polynesia, and Alaska to Mexico and back—by the time they pulled into Port Townsend, Washington, in spring 2021. They were planning a major refit, and cruising friends had told them that the Puget Sound town was the place to go.

Peter Stein saws a purpleheart beam for the Western Flyer restoration.

Peter Stein saws a purpleheart beam for the Western Flyer restoration.

Shortly after they arrived, they were describing a fairly serious oil leak in the main engine to some local sailors, who recommended they call Todd Lee, one of the owners at the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-Op.

“He came out and within the hour had it sorted,” Stephen Gratton says. Lee introduced them to one of his co-owners, Matt Henderson, with whom the Grattons felt an immediate rapport. Henderson would become the project manager of Amelie’s refit at the co-op’s facility within Port Townsend’s city-owned Boat Haven—a relief for Gratton, who’d assumed he’d have to bird-dog the multifaceted project himself. Instead, he and Debbie worked side-by-side with Henderson and co-op employees for seven months.

“If you’re a project manager working with us, you’ve got me, Debbie, and Amelie herself, and you have to be a special sort of guy who can connect with all three,” Gratton says. “We felt he connected with us and had the best interests of Amelie at heart.”

The hull of John Steinbeck’s Western Flyer is ready for the house to be installed.

The hull of John Steinbeck’s Western Flyer is ready for the house to be installed.

Not every customer is so hands-on, but even a short list of Amelie’s projects reveals the breadth of expertise the Grattons found at the co-op: pulling the prop shaft for the first time in 13 years; rerouting the exhaust system on the genset; revamping the management system for the boat’s lithium-ion batteries; conducting a complete rigging check with some needed replacements; recoating the deck nonskid; and cosmetic work including taking all the window eyebrows back to metal and repainting them.

It’s not unusual for a big boatyard to provide these and other services, but what is unusual is the method, manner, history and business philosophy underpinning the work of the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-Op, founded 40 years ago and today one of the most unique business models in the marine trades.

Brad Seamans is co-owner and shipwright at the co-op. 

Brad Seamans is co-owner and shipwright at the co-op. 

“We’re sort of a democracy,” says Pete Rust, a co-op owner since 2005. “We all vote on the decisions of the group. We all make the same amount of money. We all act in a leadership role together.”

“We are in a kind of sweet spot right now. Everybody gets along well,” says Tim Lee (no relation to Todd Lee), an owner since 2013. “For as long as I’ve been at the table, there’s been a very conscious stewardship of the company wanting to see it succeed and go forward, and putting that in front of your own ambitions.”

The co-op began in 1981 when a handful of local shipwrights purchased a ship saw and built a small shop to house it. Their goals went beyond providing services for what was then a clientele of hard-working, wooden Pacific Northwest fishing boats. They also wanted to create a business that provided “non-exploitative employment” and a sustainable living in the marine trades through a worker-owned, worker-managed structure.

That egalitarian concept has endured the conflict and strain that comes with inevitable and necessary change, but it’s remained adaptable enough to survive and thrive. Today, there are 12 co-op owners overseeing a business that serves high-end yacht owners as well as those hard-working fishermen. It employs just over 40 full-time tradespeople, including newly minted graduates of the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding (NWSWB), as well as those with decades in the boatyard.

Employees restore a classic Gig Harbor skiff. 

Employees restore a classic Gig Harbor skiff. 

From its one-building inception, the co-op now can accommodate vessels up to 140 feet and owns four buildings comprising 33,600 square feet, with outside space of 25,000 square feet—evidence of the “exponential growth” of the past six years, says Tim Lee. Port Townsend provides the three lifts for hauling—70, 75 and 330 tons. The co-op’s overhead cranes can lift 10 tons, and its shops include wood, metal, machines, systems, rigging and upholstery. Most recently, they’ve added sailmaking to the roster after purchasing the renowned Hasse & Company Port Townsend Sails, which was for sale after Carol Hasse’s retirement.

It was a somewhat controversial decision, says Rust, but he feels it was the right one; the co-op and the loft “just go together. We’re preserving a marine trade in our community, a highly reputed sailmaking company.” And, he adds, co-op owners know Hasse and the loft’s employees well, having already collaborated on projects.

Finding that kind of synergy is a key element to the co-op’s success. In the past, people became owners by perhaps subcontracting and eventually letting it be known that they’d like to join. Now, the process is more strategic, with those invited to join fulfilling a specific specialty or expertise. “It allows us to represent all the different aspects of the marine trades with our leadership—metal fabrication, electrical, woodworking, diesel engines, painting,” Rust says. “And we collaborate on all of the big jobs.”

Sailmakers at Hasse & Co. Port Townsend Sail Loft

Sailmakers at Hasse & Co. Port Townsend Sail Loft

This shift mirrors the co-op’s transition from its roots in wooden fishing boats to today working on vessels as diverse as Jason Hannah’s 92-foot steel expedition yacht New Pacific, and the 42-foot, 1969 Chris-Craft Commander he’s commissioned the co-op to completely rebuild, upgrade and update in a 1960s “Mad Men” style. “There are not many places that I know of in the world I could take either of those boats and really get A-to-Z type of service,” Hannah says. “They can do it all. They go above and beyond.”

“We have a really varied client base, partly because we have such a diverse group of owners. We all come from different backgrounds,” says Chris Brignoli, a cutting-edge electrical systems specialist and owner since 2003. These days, it’s usually about 50-50 recreational yachts to commercial boats, Rust says, and even these run the gamut.

For instance, among the 2021 projects were the halibut schooners Polaris, Vansee, and Seymour, all built in 1913, and Grant built in 1926. Today they longline for black cod and halibut, says Brad Seamans, the newest co-op owner who joined in 2018 as a shipwright specializing in “big timber” and caulking.

Co-owner Matt Henderson works equipment.

Co-owner Matt Henderson works equipment.

Tim Lee and Rust are co-leaders on one of the co-op’s highest-profile projects, the rebuild of Western Flyer. Writer John Steinbeck and his friend Ed Ricketts chartered the 72-foot purse seiner in 1940 for a six-week ecological expedition through the Gulf of California, a trip Steinbeck documented in the book The Log from the Sea of Cortez. The boat, which had sunk three times, is now owned by the Western Flyer Foundation, which plans to use it for at-sea experiential education for schoolchildren on trips from Alaska to Mexico.

“A lot of people are interested in it because of Ricketts or Steinbeck, but I think it’s interesting because it’s a big workboat,” says Lee, who for 8 years was chief instructor at NWSWB, the alma mater for several co-op owners that continues to serve as a talent pool. “The Northwest commercial boats are some of the finest sea boats ever built, so to be involved in building one new, that aspect I find very rewarding and interesting, looking at the boat and figuring out how it was made.”

New Pacific rests at anchor off the west side of Blake Island, Washington

New Pacific rests at anchor off the west side of Blake Island, Washington

Regardless of scope, every project is managed by an owner whose area of expertise matches the project. Some, like Western Flyer, are complex enough to require two owner-managers. For boat owners, that’s an advantage over the more typical, hierarchically structured boatyard run by one or two frequently overstretched owners or managers who juggle multiple projects at once and often have to hand them off.

“We have a high level of accountability,” Brignoli says. “If you’re bringing your boat to us for repair or refit, you have an owner of the company directly responsible for your project every day. And that owner has a relationship with you. Even the employees have a lot of accountability because they’re working alongside an owner of the business.”

It’s also an advantage for the co-op’s owners and employees, who have instant access to a deep pool of trusted, collaborative expertise.

Co-owner and systems and electronics expert Chris Brignoli runs diagnostics on a vessel

Co-owner and systems and electronics expert Chris Brignoli runs diagnostics on a vessel

“My favorite part really is I don’t have to make up an answer or pretend I know something I don’t,” says Seamans. “I can just say right up front, ‘I don’t know the answer to that question but I will get one.’’’ Among the 12 owners we have over 350 years of experience. And we have employees who have worked on boats for 20-plus years.”

Hiring employees was a major, controversial step. For decades, if owners needed additional help or expertise, they would bring in subcontractors. Employees were almost anathema to the co-op concept. Eventually, though, “we realized we were using the title of a subcontractor to be basically somebody’s boss without legally employing them,” Rust says. “We decided the proper way to do it is to employ people.”

Historical reference photos of Western Flyer

Historical reference photos of Western Flyer

“It was a tough transition,” Brignoli says. “There are a lot of independent thinkers here who don’t want to be tied down to having employees. The norm was for a lot of us to disappear for a summer or half a year, including myself. I would go cruising. But we started slowly getting smarter. It was like an evolution. We can make more money, have a more reliable business and churn product out year-round if we have a steady employee base.”

All owners and employees partake of profit-sharing; the owners get the same share and employees are rewarded using a sliding scale based on position as well as hours worked. “We try to create an incentive-based work ethic,” Rust says, “the feeling that we’re part of a team here. So, if we can all work hard and help each other, we all get rewarded.”

A collection of halibut schooners in for seasonal repairs

A collection of halibut schooners in for seasonal repairs

For Gregg and Rachel Dietzman—who own the 1948, Robert Allan-designed former British Columbia patrol boat Poplar III—finding the co-op six years ago has engendered a sense of security and comfort when they take their wooden boat beyond the Salish Sea and up to Southeast Alaska. They came to Brignoli with a vexing electrical issue. Since then, a steady flow of upgrades have included a shaft log refit, major rebuild of the sidedecks and foredeck, hull plank replacement, complete recaulking below the waterline, and an electrical system code compliance and performance refit.

“That interdisciplinary aspect of the service they offer really helps us as boat owners feel like we’re safe on the water,” Gregg Dietzman says. “We’re always looking forward to our time getting work done there because it’s a great group of people to hang with.” 

This article was originally published in the February 2022 issue.

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