The Center for Wooden Boats

boyandboat

(Wave Writer, August 2011)

The Fourth of July was sunny and hot. It was a day for shorts and ice cream. And wooden boats. It was the perfect weekend for the 35th annual Wooden Boat Festival’s new look in the new Lake Union Park at the south end of Lake Union in Seattle.

Over that weekend, 30,000 people, the large preponderance of them non-boaters, figured some time messing about around boats was a good way to spend a day or two. It all came courtesy of The Center for Wooden Boats (CWB), Seattle’s greatest connection between boating and the non-boating public.

 

In contrast to marinas, boat shows and dealerships, there were no fences, gatekeepers or salesfolk. It was, really, a celebration of boating in Seattle. People, and particularly kids, could just wander down and have their imaginations piqued, go for a sailboat, rowboat, paddleboat, steamboat, electric or power boat ride and breath in the atmosphere some of us hold so dearly. The kids could “build” little boats and see them float in the model boat pond. In that same pond, beautiful scale models were sailing back and forth. As the models plowed into the fenders on the perimeter, anyone could put down their sandwich and turn the boats around around for another pond crossing. Or perhaps put one of the rubber duckies onboard. When kids build and sail the models, and it’s not Festival time, they get instruction on sail trim.festival-sunday-036

Beautifully restored wooden boats were everywhere and most had an owner or caretaker present to tell the boat’s story or explain how it was built. Classy powerboats, lithe sailboats and elegant rowboats were all well represented. Folk were asked to vote for their favorite restoration. The winner was the stunning power 31 foot Venitian power launch Capolavaro which would turn heads anywhere, any time.

Best of all, people could go for those boat rides for free. About 1,500 took advantage of it in a weekend. “It is part of our mission,” explains Dan Leach, Community Engagement Lead for the CWB, “to get people who’ve never been on a boat before out for a ride.”

So, what exactly is the CWB? Some trade group funded by the marine industry? Some government agency that sees the value in waterfront recreation for all? A co-op of yacht clubs hoping for more members? Nope, just a resourceful non-profit group. While politicians and marine pros figure out ways to trim budgets or eek out profits, the CWB just puts on the most accessible boating event in the area. Granted, they do it with some help from grants and support from the marine industry, but basically it moves forward and figures out multiple funding sources to fulfill its mission.pugatpond

CWB founder Dick Wagner and friends started collecting wooden boats and letting people use them way back in the 1960s. In 1981, he managed to move into a decrepit corner of south Lake Union on land and waters managed by the DNR. A floating woodshop was soon built. Eventually a floating building with offices, classroom and bathrooms was added.

Over the years the CWB keeps adding programs and capabilities. There’s the boat rental program. Anyone can rent a boat. To rent a sailboat, the skipper must be able to demonstrate rudimentary skills of getting a boat in and out of the dock safely, but that’s fairly easily done. There are woodworking classes, boatbuilding classes, learn to sail classes and even a learn to race class.

As an essential part of its mission, the CWB is committed to giving everyone a hands-on boating experience. It even offers a “pay what you can” for kids who might not otherwise be able to afford it. And there are free boat rides on Sundays for anyone on a first come first serve basis.

Where does the CWB get its money for a $1.2 million operating budget? Especially at times like these? Like any good organization, funding comes from a number of sources. Sailing lessons, boat rentals and boat building classes all contribute. The Center rents out its gallery space. Corporate sponsors contribute, and there are grants for very specific programs. An example of this is a grant from the Paul Allen foundation for a youth apprentice program for kids from challenged backgrounds to get some hands-on boating skills. Some money comes in from the many school field trips that visit the Center. Another income source is corporate team-building programs.

“And,” as Dan Leach says, “donations are always gratefully accepted.” Finally, there are memberships. Memberships are inexpensive ($40 individual) and provide significant discounts on rentals and gift shop items.

Perhaps the most important donations come in the form of volunteer hours. Wooden boat and maritime enthusiasts devote countless hours to building and repairing boats, teaching woodworking skills, teaching boating and taking folk out on rides. For many people, the CWB is more than just a place to visit, it’s a vital part of their lives.

The CWB also works closely with all parts of the civic and marine community. Last year it served as the base for the Hinman Trophy US team racing championship. As a partner to the Seattle Yacht Club, the CWB helped bring top-flight international team racing to the tricky waters of Lake Union.

The city of Seattle and Washington State both work closely with the CWB. In fact, one of the most important developments in recent years is the remodeling and reopening of the Cama Beach State Park lodge. Once one of many fishing lodges in the Northwest, this lodge sat idle for many years. Washington renovated the cabins and lodge, and asked the CWB to manage the boating facilities. For now there are simple rowing or outboard powered skiffs that can be dollied to the water, but there are hopes that the old marine railway can be brought back to life to make launching boats easier.

 

Pirate

One of the most visible and arguably the most beautiful CWB success is the restoration of the R Boat Pirate. She is a living history piece and a quintessentially Northwest past/present project.

Built in 1926 by Lake Union Dry Dock Company, Pirate was shipped to California where she enjoyed a lot of racing success. She then was shipped to Long Island Sound where once again she made her mark before returning to California.

After decades of racing and cruising and deterioration, Pirate ended up available to the CWB. Well-known Seattle sailor Scott Rohrer (aka The Master of Pirate) took her on as a labor of love in 1999.

Pirate’s deck was pulled off and everything that needed to be repaired or replaced, was repaired or replaced. The first-class original double planking of teak and mahogany made the restoration possible and really made Pirate worth saving.

Today, Pirate completes in classic yacht regattas. Mainly, however, she serves as a drop-dead gorgeous example of what boating can be and how history and the present day can make magic on the waterfront.

As a fitting connection between the past and present, shortly after Pirate was built, a program was developed for kids to build 1/12th scale models and race them. That program was reintroduced during the recent restoration. Those were the models gracing the model boat pond during the festival.

Learn about Pirate’s history and restoration at www.r-boat.org. Anyone interested in history, wooden boats or racing will find themselves drawn in by this story.

Future

If the CWB was once a relatively dim glow on the Seattle landscape, it’s poised to be one of the brightest lights on the newest Seattle stage. Lake Union Park, which has raised endless questions and controversy while taking shape over the past few years, looks like it will live up to much of the hype. During the Wooden Boat Festival, the plaza proved to be a great gathering place and the model boat pond was a perfect place for kids and adults to sit and picnic and soak in the waterfront ambiance.

More is yet to come. The old naval training base and armory is undergoing a transformation into the new Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI). Instead of being in a remote spot from downtown, MOHAI will now be adjacent to it.

There’s a spot on the north end of the armory overlooking Lake Union that used to house the ship’s bridge mockup for training. It’s slated to house the maritime historical exhibit.

Across the bridge to the west from MOHAI will be the Northwest Nations Canoe Center and an area for hand-launching boats. The Historic Ship’s Wharf, and transient moorage for historical craft are already in place and managed by the CWB. Currently there’s the lightship Swiftsure, the tug Arthur Foss, the Mosquito Fleet boat Virginia V and the fireboat Duwamish. The CWB is in the planning stages for a dedicated Education Center building.

In short, South Lake Union is already a Mecca for maritime history, and will become more so. And it’s the public’s best access to the Pacific Northwest’s greatest resource, its waters and all that go with them. Some boaters may yawn at public access to the waterfront, but for folk who can otherwise only see boats through locked gates, having access to the water is wonderful and rare.

While conflict and strife over public facilities tend to dominate the media, this is an instance where about 50 disparate groups, with the CWB’s executive director Betsy Davis helping coordinate, are working diligently to deliver something of real value to the public. Called the Working Group at Lake Union Park, participants meet every two weeks with a can-do spirit. Cooperation may not make headlines, but it does get things done.

Learn a lot more about the current facilities and future plans at www.atlakeunionpark.org.

There’s more on the horizon. Some land on the north end of Lake Union may become available for the CWB to expand into. Who knows, maybe decades from now, with a successful Lake Union Park at the south end of the lake, there could be something similar at the north end of the lake. And in each location, people could just go mess about in boats.

For those, like myself, who sometimes despair of what will become of the pastime we love, remember that once upon a time at south Lake Union there was a decrepit little forgotten corner of the waterfront and someone with a dream of sharing wooden boats with the public.

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