von Stark photography

Convergence

SHIPWRIGHTS: Surgeons for the Seafaring Published in the Sequim Gazette, "Living on The Peninsula" summer 2006 The great Northwest is the land of water and wood - and what a better symbol for this paradise than an ancient vessel - the wooden boat? Since before recorded times men have kept water crafts afloat using wood from the forest that is bent and shaped by iron workers. Sailing from the past to present, these craftsmen continue to ply the trade that keeps these wooden boats plowing the vast cold waters. The old English word for a maker or builder was “wright” - hence, shipbuilders were called shipwrights. In early history, shipwrights could have been the grandfathers of all trades. To build a boat in ancient times, shipwrights were similar to NASA engineers in that they were on the cutting edge of technologies and were responsible for building sound boats that would sail thousands of miles into uncharted territories. Many lives depended on their expertise. Whole economies depended on trade and commerce made possible by these ancient wooded ships and the men who crafted them Without the wooden boat, the great Northwest would not be quite the same. A hundred and fifty years ago the roads were few and muddy, slow to travel and inhospitable. The land was sparsely populated. For speed and financial reasons, the bountiful waterways were the logical choice of travel. Available manpower was needed close to the economic centers such as Seattle and Tacoma and so the Northwest shipbuilding industry was created. Various outer points such as Port Townsend needed services to keep the boats in safe working condition and so shipwrights played a vital role in the Northwest. When the 19th and 20th centuries collided, the supremacy of wooden boats still was intact although they faced challenges from newcomers such as steel. As time went on, the abundance of quality wood waned and the availability of steel became a fact of life. The wooden boat was losing dominance but still was considered a viable alternative for fishing fleets and sportsmen. By the time the 1050's arrived, a new material was gaining popularity. With the advent of fiberglass, shipwrighting became just a job, a shrinking and dying trade. The age of Aquarius came to the rescue in the late 1960's when a resurgence of doing things by hand and a rekindling and love of handmade products became increasingly popular. There was a genuine movement to preserve history and the ancient ways of making boats. Pride and quality, form and function again were valued. Today, the Olympic Peninsula is home to one of the finest shipwright trade schools in the nation with the Northwest School of Wooden Boat Building located in Port Hadlock. These skilled shipwrights are romanticized as conduits from the past moving into the future. The reality of shipwrights is not quite so romantic. The trade is physically demanding, dirty, difficult and dangerous with its exposure to health hazards. Why would anyone want to do it? Could it be a genuine love of the trade and pride in how it is accomplished? Perhaps it is the boats themselves or the lure of the sea or could it be the preservation of history? Being that shipwrights are surprisingly land lubbers, perhaps they toil for the love of wood-working with it, feeling it, smelling it. There are no store-bought pieces of wood off the shelf. The wood is shaped, cut and fitted by hand and eye. Knowledge and skill with their hand tools are still as important as they have been for a thousand years. Rulers and tape measures are carpenters tools. They work with the straight and square. Unlike carpenters, the shipwrights make all the parts used in repair and building by hand. A shipwright knows different woods have different characteristics. The amount of heat and steam needed to break down the fibers so that the wood can be bent is a tricky and time-consuming process. Indeed shipwrights are like surgeons-they open up their patients, remove whats bad, fix it and stitch them up again. To preserve and protect their human cargo, the wooden boat has too be water tight and long-lasting. Shipbuilding and repair require high quality lumber, high resin and tight grain-and by extension, slow-growing wood and healthy forests. Hence the old tug of war-lumber profits come from fast growing forests and early cuts. Tick tick goes the clock…is this a last ditch effort fighting against the inevitable? Hopefully not. Because when you look at our water paradise and see wooden boats sailing or powering by with grace and beauty, know that a special breed, the shipwright, is keeping them and history afloat and alive. Boats have a primitive hold on us, a tiny microcosm of life on water. Wooden boats are sculptures in form and function and when you stand upon them, you can feel them. They are alive, they move, they speak in the familiar creaking sounds heard for thousands of years. written by Harry von Stark
All images on this site © Harry von Stark web site design: Jan Hoy Design 360.678.3603