The last boat I built was constructed in Princeton-By-The-Sea, California, close by Half Moon Bay. Surfers will know it as “Mavericks.” This boat was a to be a “combination vessel,” meaning it could ply its trade in a variety of fisheries, including trolling for salmon and tuna, as a tanked crabber (what this boat works as today), or for packing, the hauling of bulk fish for other smaller vessels.
These large combination boats are 60-70 tons in weight when empty and 58 feet in length. They begin life devouring large quantities of just about everything. It takes 3,000lbs of welding rod to weld the seams. To coat the hull, the pails of paint alone weigh over 2000lbs. When first launched, the first few moments after splashing down can be a heart-stopper as the builders watch, hoping the vessels keep their shiny side up. After answering the question “will it float?” they stop at the fuel dock to load over 6000 gallons of diesel. This takes the better part of an afternoon and more than the better part of any money one has left after building the beast. Small incidentals include 100 gallons of hydraulic oil and maybe 100 gallons of lube oil if one wants the engine to remain in one piece for any significant length of time.
The building of these boats is an unnerving activity, assaulting those nearby with a truly distressing, unrelenting, and constant cacophony of sites, sounds, and smells. As a result, boat yards for this kind of work are located in places where there are either no people, people that have no form of redress such as hobos and vagrants, or people that are so enchanted by the pursuit of fish that all of this, what normal gentry confuse as “annoyances”, smell like the sweetest of perfume and the most melodious of music.
These kinds of places, in the past, existed around almost every port. Steinbeck wrote about them in “Cannery Row”, recreating images of these exotic and fascinating places in perfect detail. Princeton-By-The-Sea was just such a place with a very old Italian man, Joe Romeo, who owned almost everything in town. Joe drove around in an equally old pickup truck to collect the rents, in cash, from all the junk yards, boat yards, storage yards, and permanently parked school bus tenements that populated the several blocks of heaven that was Princeton.
Another member of Joes’ family, Charley Romeo, ran a small tuna processing plant there at the western end of the piers in Princeton-By-The-Sea. The pier was owned by Joe, of course. Charley Romeo, by chance, sold the tuna operation to StarKist Tuna lock stock and barrel, including the little blue fish on the sign. You may remember the commercials for StarKist featuring “Charley Tuna”? That We Owe It All To Charlie Romeo all started by Charley Romeo being called “Charley Tuna” around town, so when StarKist bought the little processing plant, their advertising agency was so taken by the idea that they decided to make it their identity. As a result, we all came to know that little blue tuna named “Charley.”
Next door on, the lot to the East, my neighbor, known to the neighborhood as “Indian Joe,” was a Native American carpenter living in a sailboat that looked remarkably like a pirate ship. The land-bound vessel was propped up on shoring timbers next to my construction yard. Joe claimed to be getting close to finishing the boat, with, he boldly would state, “launch imminent!”. But too many years had passed with this same status report to allow very much excitement in the neighborhood to gain momentum.
Indian Joe would work when the beer ran low, but the rest of the time he simply remained secluded in his stern cabin. A steady supply of empty beer cans raining down from his stern porthole and dropping the 10 feet to the ground below. Joe had served in Vietnam, and occasionally he returned to that war with screams rising from the boat in the night, “they’re coming over the wire! Man the 50, this is it!!” From time to time, accompanying the screams, a rifle barrel would protrude from that same stern porthole, traversing from side to side looking for a target. At those times, I elected to continue welding in my boat’s steel-lined compartment, considering the fortification duly warranted.
A little time was required to establish some rapport with Joe, usually time enough for you to finally realize that the string of threats and profanity eminating from the deck of a grounded sailing vessel was Joes’ form of an endearing greeting. When the movers showed up to move my boat to the water, Joe looked disconsolate but assured me that he would be launching right behind me and we would meet again soon, on the water.
Steel boats are not painted until the very end of construction. As a result, in the one to two years it takes to construct such a boat by a small yard such as mine, the boat serves as an immense wall of rust, apparently irresistible to inspired artists. One night just such a wandering artist took it upon themself to climb the rickety scaffolding and, in welders chalk, draw on the boat the most beautiful and well-endowed Norse shieldmaiden that anyone in the neighborhood had ever seen. I will add that she was drawn “without her shield,” shall we say.
A local newspaper caught wind of this, sending some eager photographer out to get a picture. This was followed up by some clever editor I suppose, dubbing the accomplishment and the boat “The Viking Lady”. From that time on, people stopped by the ship to inquire, “Is this ‘The Viking Lady'” to which I would dejectedly reply, “well, I guess so.” After all, I firmly decided to name the boat something different entirely, but I could feel the heavy burden of social pressure building on the horizon.
The image remained on the side of the boat, renewed by this visiting artist periodically when I wasn’t around. It was immensely enjoyed by all of the members of the biker gang that had their clubhouse and welding shop down the street, as well as much of Half Moon Bay, it seemed. When it finally came time to sandblast and paint the boat, I was roundly accused of an abject act of heresy, first for not having the Viking Lady’s’ image painted in its strikingly immodest majesty as part of the final paint job, and secondly for not demonstrating proper respect for the community by naming the boat “The Viking Lady”. After all, Princeton had a long tradition of boat building, and mine was the last boat ever built there, and the community felt that things were owed.
The biker gang down the street is worthy of comment here. They called themselves the “Unknown Nomads,” or just “Nomads” for short. For some reason I will never understand they took a liking to me. I have a bad habit of excessive trustworthiness with an equal measure of carelessness thrown in when it comes to protecting possessions, so it was not unusual for tools of considerable value to be strewn around the yard and not put away at the end of the day. In a neighborhood such as Princeton, one would identify that as a fairly knot-headed thing. Remarkably, none were ever taken. I learned later that the “Nomads” had let it be known around the neighborhood that my yard and tools were off-limits to those in need of some fast cash. In addition, Indian Joe had also put the word out that he considered my yard within his “perimeter wire” and anybody inside the perimeter would “make the casualty list.” My tools and yard remained undisturbed, under the protection of the “Nomads” and a rather ill-tempered Black Foot Indian.
Across the street lived “Schoolbus Dave”, not surprisingly, in a school bus. Dave’s school bus served as the hub of the hobo community in Princeton. Dave, by some act of ingenuity, gained access to the bus. He didn’t own it; nobody was sure who did. As long as Joe Romeo got his few dollars in cash every month, he didn’t care much about ownership issues or the discourse of events taking place there. Almost every night, there would be a hobo cookout. Folks would drift in with elements of a dinner, slightly expired meat procured out the back door of some local butcher, produce from a dumpster, and usually a jug of low-cost wine, the product of a little creative panhandling by those so skilled at that art. Dave fired up the wood grill and before long it was a delicious meal under the stars followed by a night that mellowed with wine and discussions of the days’ events and those times.
I often worked on the boat, welding, choking, and burning holes in myself late into the night. It was a race to get it done before I was finally overcome with the utter hopelessness of the task, and had to be carried screaming from the steel tomb where I was being held, not against my will but soundly against my better judgment. From time to time, as darkness set in on the yard, there would be a knock on the hull, and Schoolbus Dave would yell, “you’re working too hard. You need to eat!”. That was an invitation to join the Hobo cookout, an invitation I initially declined, but one I soon learned to never miss out on again. This group of people had nothing, neither a roof over their head nor prospects for tomorrow, yet they shared what they did have, their food and company, with me, someone who had everything. This left me in complete wonder. They were concerned for my wellbeing when theirs was in serious doubt and at significant risk. The humbling nature of this experience was and is beyond my ability to put into words. I learned to look forward to that knocking on the hull with great excitement and always have something ready to contribute to the feast.
In these kinds of waterfront communities, and in much of the commercial fishing industry in general, asking someone’s last name is often considered unacceptable and rude. Native American people were often known by what they did, or some interesting aspect about them that was recognizable and served to keep their past transgressions or misfortune safely stored away.
The characters of Princeton, to name just a few, were those like Indian Joe, Bicycle Billy, Joe The Chess Player, Bob the Welder, and School bus Dave. After I had been around for a while, people decided they needed some way to refer to me in their daily conversation, so with all good manners to the fore, they did not ask my last name but rather decided I was most aptly referred to as “Dave the boatbuilder”, and that is who I became in my time there. If I needed to buy something in town or transact some other daily business it served no meaningful end to tell them my full name. But if I mentioned I was “Dave the boatbuilder” then everything proceeded with ease and some appropriate discount was applied if money was to change hands.
Sometimes engaging in unusual activities bears equally unusual fruits. Welding, cutting, and making a lot of noise, especially on some large and interesting steel structures like boats, can attract many visitors, especially if you don’t have a fence or a disagreeable dog. Neither of which I had on this project. Cars passing by would slow down, go down the street, turn around, go by slower, and finally stop. People climbing out to take a closer look.
It was kind of like being in the zoo, on the exhibitees side of the fence! People would stand off at a distance, pointing and motioning with their hands, making circles and sweeping gestures to one another, at me and the large pile of steel I seemed to be hopelessly in service to, to communicate what they perceived to be the events unfolding before them.
I was reminded of my occasional trips to Fleishhacker Zoo in San Francisco, where I would stand for long periods, taking in the events on Monkey Island. To watch Monkey Island for any length of time was to see perhaps every aspect of human behavior unfold before you on the island. It cleared up, for me, many mysteries of human interaction. The constant gibbering and screeching between packs of allied monkeys to other packs was a perfect analog for Twitter. Perhaps that is where the idea arose for the founding of the company.
The visitors to the Viking Lady yard sensed that, If I was involved in some important activity, like welding, winching steel, or balancing on a particularly spindly piece of scaffolding, this was the perfect time to engage with me in a discussion of the various activities underway. The usual questions and comments were along the lines of, “so, what you doin?” or “looks like a lot of work!”.
The most common question was, “where are all your steel bending machines?”. To which I would simply hold up a steel wedge, there were always several within reach, and reply, “here it is!”. Because that was the truth of it. Sheets of quarter-inch plate steel are six feet by twenty feet and weigh 1,996 pounds. With a simple wedge, you can bend those sheets into pretty much any kind of compound curve that you can dream up. That’s the total of it. It’s as primitive as it gets. A wedge, a hammer, and a stick welder. Voila, a boat.
One day, as I was welding deck plates, I noticed, from the reflection in my welding helmet, that a car had slowed to a stop in front of the yard behind me. Anticipating another session of “where’s the bending machines” I tried to ignore the man walking around the yard and headed in my general direction. From the reflection in my welding helmet, I could see that he was old, very old, and walked with great difficulty. He came to stand behind me until I finally realized this man deserved respect, so I stopped welding and engaged with him.
He had no questions. He explained that he was beyond 90 years old and that his father had been the last navigator on the sailing ship “The Star of India.” I knew the ship; it rests on display at the Maritime Museum in San Diego, California. He related how his father left him with the original wheelhouse charts of that ship, and that before he passed on, he wanted to give those charts to someone that would truly appreciate what they were, so he could feel that he had honored his father in that way. He asked if I would take them.
I was stunned. Those charts were from a time when watchmakers were the only source for navigation charts. Each one handcrafted and signed by the watchmaker’s own hand. After this remarkable visitor explained he had an Atlantic set and a Pacific set, I suggested that I would most enthusiastically accept the Pacific set but that he should take the Atlantic set to the San Francisco Maritime Museum. He heartily agreed, thanking me for the suggestion. After retrieving the Pacific set from his car and presenting them to me, he set off for San Francisco. Today, the Pacific charts fill the walls of my home overlooking the Columbia Bar and the San Diego Maritime Museum has agreed to accept them when I am done with them, to be displayed in or near the wheelhouse where they originally guided the ship to ports around the world.
Eventually, after what seemed like the passing of decades, but really only about 18 months, the last of the paint was sprayed, zincs were welded on, and the boat mover was called to begin her journey to the water. Moving day was a big event in Princeton, with the last boat to ever be built there venturing out. Power lines were taken down, roads were blocked, and the local newspaper showed up with an old-time “Speed Graphic” camera.
The crowd was ready for excitement. Would it float? Would there be some kind of mishap? After all, the boat to launch before me, a seventy-three-foot trawler, destined for Dutch Harbor, Alaska, had just such a mishap. It seems the boat owner, having his own theories on most every subject, decided he did not need to follow the convention of launching at a harbor facility. Rather, he would set down steel plates over a tidal flat, during low tide, and then back the 100+ ton trawler down the steel ramp, only having to wait until high tide for the boat to be lifted with the rising sea. Unfortunately, the surveyor he hired, to determine where the boat should be positioned to rise on the tide, either had a mishap with alcohol or an extremely odd sense of humor because when the tide rose, the boat did not. The beautiful new boat sat despondently in five feet of water, 100 short of sufficient depth. The steel plates sank into the harbor floor beneath it, never to be seen again. The problem was resolved only by the innovation, and the courage of the captain hired to run the boat. The skipper fired up its thirty-two-cylinder Cummins main engine, engaged the enormous propeller in reverse, and tore a six-foot-deep trench through the mud, finally reaching open water in a wonderful display of raw machine power.
For my boat, the move and launch were smooth, and a large crowd trailed behind on its short journey from the yard to the Pillar Point Harbor where it was launched. As the boat, now bearing its name, “Shearwater Two”, floated for the first time on the water, its keel no longer the only support for its massive weight, I realized my life was changing, and the journey that was “The Viking Lady” was over. Neither the boat, nor I, would likely ever revisit Princeton-By-The-Sea, and there would no longer be a “Dave the boatbuilder”.
Tiring of commercial fishing, I later sold the boat. Deciding instead to pursue this fascinating new software industry that was forming. Years later, on an Alaska Airlines flight to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, I passed the long hours thumbing through the inflight magazine. I happened across an article that was a collection of photos titled “The Ten Most Beautiful Things in Washington State,” and filling one of the photos, there she was. The Viking Lady, in all her majesty, holding station at her slip at Fishermen’s Terminal in Seattle, right where I’d parked her. It seemed I was not the only one to be captivated by her remarkable beauty and grace.
Today the F/V Shearwater Two finds its homeport in Westport, Washington, and works as a Dungeness crabber, fishing the North Pacific winter crab fishery. Occasionally, she will venture Into the Columbia River to land crabs or make repairs, traveling over the Columbia bar and past my home. We have now become just ships passing in the night. May there forever be fair seas under her keel.
|F/V SHEARWATER TWO|
|Coastguard documented vessel|
|Crossing the Westport Bar, Outbound|
|USCG Doc||# 945536|
|Hailing Port||Westport, WA|
|Tonnage||48 GT/38 NT|
|Year of Build||1990|
|Builder||David Knight, Princeton, CA|