Over the past four decades, Port Townsend, WA has become an important hub for the building and maintenance of wooden boats on the West Coast. It is there that the history and skills of wooden boatbuilding are still taught, shaping the souls of those that go to sea.
Learn more about the 46th Wooden Boat Festival on September 8 to 10, 2023 in Port Townsend, Washington!
Is there really anything more captivating than the thought of being on a sailboat out in the open water, zipping up and down the waves purely with the power of the wind? You might call it romantic perhaps, or adventurous, but there is something primal, something visceral about sailing, alone against the elements. And wooden vessels add to that idea – these are ships created with manual labor and care. Not only are they functional, but they are works of art as well, with the smooth shining boards keeping the ship afloat, plus the towering masts taking the power of the wind-driven sails.
The ship’s masts and rigging also must handle the occasional sailor or three – the sails don’t sheet themselves! The labor necessary to operate a true sailboat can be intense, especially during harsh weather, from simple squalls to torrential thunderstorms. A sailor swinging high on a mast during a blow must have absolute faith in the strength of the mast they are clinging to, not to mention the various other parts of the ship. The entire crew depends on the durability of the whole vessel, from keel to hull to decking. It has to be completely watertight and solid enough to ensure the safety of all aboard through any sort of weather. In other words, a ship has to be both seaworthy and trustworthy. But how do you get to trustworthy, how can that feeling of trustworthiness be imparted to others?
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It all starts with quality. It sounds cliché – after all, it’s a tired bromide to point out that quality is always important. Having said that, it is still completely true, especially when your life may be depending on it. Quality, while always desirable, is obviously more essential in some areas than others. But where does quality come from anyway? Does it have to come from a lone artisan, painstakingly honing their craft through the years, or perhaps a well-knit team all working together at the top of their game? When you have a high-quality meal at a restaurant, is it due to the chef, the ambiance, the ingredients, or the presentation? You know quality when you experience it, but it’s sometimes a challenge to point directly at it.
In the case of building wooden sailing ships, quality must come from all the contributors. In Filson Films’ short video, Soul of a Boat, we see three important teams bring it all together in Port Townsend, Washington to create the sort of craft you could trust your life with.
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The film opens with shots of the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding, where an expert craftsman is using a traditional manual plane to work a board to very exact specifications. As he uses the plane, ribbon-like curls of wood float to the floor while he works his magic on this particular plank. The very act of taking this sort of personal care and deliberation is already reassuring – there’s nothing better than seeing artisans using their hands on a piece, using their eyes and touch to make sure it will be right.
This man says he has two passions: sailing and building. “When you build your own boat, you know exactly the quality of your work. When you trust what you are building, you can go out to sea.” The person who will be actually sailing the boat will certainly make sure it is done well, as best as possible.
So yes, there is the builder, but there are also the ingredients that play a part in the quality of the vessel. For that, we head to Edensaw Woods, also in Port Townsend, and see a large yet specialized lumberyard. The people there know their customers, and when a wooden-ship builder comes in for the next project, they know that this is a little different from someone repairing their picket fence.
At Edensaw Woods, one can also sense the pride of purpose and ownership. “With these parts going into wooden boats, there’s no way I’d want to give them a part where I wouldn’t wanna say that I cut that, I made that, I’m part of your boat.” This collaboration between supplier and builder is an essential part of ensuring overall quality. “I wouldn’t want to walk onto a boat unless I do the best job that I can possibly do here.”
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Okay, so we have the natural components in the hand-picked wood, we have the skill of the builder in assembling these pieces, but there are also a lot of metal pieces, even in a completely wooden craft. And for these, Filson Films arrives at Port Townsend Foundry, where molten metal is poured into either sand, ceramic, or die molds – by hand, one at a time. The definition of painstaking craftsmanship.
One of the metalworkers reminisces, “Even now, 37 years into it, I can go out and look at the vessels that I’ve put hardware on – they’re still sailing, they’re performing at a very high level.” One gets the impression that every piece he creates is going to be around for a very, very long time, and it’s a point of pride with him to see his efforts still in use decades later. And he’s not about to accept anything less of himself today. The carefulness, the feeling of ownership, these have been life-long guideposts for what he does and how he does it.
The sea, of course, is a rough and unforgiving environment. In a hand-crafted ship, quality counts! Part of the romance of sailing is how, when all the various parts and pieces finally come together, they create a whole that is much more than the sum of the parts. A personality has been somehow created, which is why a ship is referred to as “she.” The ship’s individual character will endure through physical changes – after all, damages and accidents will always occur, and periodic repairs are a necessary part of being on the sea. As our shipbuilder explains, “You can change any single part of a boat, but there’s one thing we never repair on the boat, and that’s the soul. The soul of a boat stays on the boat.”
“It’s like a body – you can change any part of your body, and your soul will still be here. It’s the same thing for a boat.”
Watch Filson Films’ short film, Soul of a Boat, here:
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About Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding
Located in Port Hadlock, Washington, the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding is an educational institution accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Colleges and Schools (ACCSC), and attracts students from around the world. Founded in 1981, the School has taught wooden boatbuilding and marine systems skills to more than 1,500 students. They offer a full-time 12 month Associate of Occupational Studies (AOS) degree in Wooden Boatbuilding and a 9-month diploma program in Marine Systems.
About Port Townsend, WA Wooden Boat Festival
The Wooden Boat Festival is a part of the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend, Washington, whose mission is to engage and educate people of all generations in traditional and contemporary maritime life, in a spirit of adventure and discovery.
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