A summer of stories from the Ilwaco Boatyard
By LUKE WHITTAKER
ILWACO — You’ve likely seen them on your way to the Ilwaco Saturday Market. Perhaps you’ve stopped to ponder who they are or where they’ve been. Standing on scaffolds and sliding under hulls, Pthey’re busiest during the sultriest days of summer — sanding, painting, repairing and replacing. Some come from continents across the ocean, others are longtime locals, but all are bound by the regular maintenance and repairs boats require, and each has a story for every season.
Earl Soule, 71, considers “re-corking,” or recaulking, a boat a lost art that requires a special touch.
“The strength of a wooden boat is the seams,” Soule said. “Everybody thinks it’s the frame, but it’s the caulking. Caulking makes the whole boat tight.”
Much of Soule’s work is done by sound and touch, a rare skill he’s cultivated over decades of working on wooden boats.
“It’s all by feel,” Soule said in between swings of his mallet. “I can tell what it’s doing all the time because I can feel it.”
Soule was helping Florian Mumford replace 12 ribs underneath the planks of Mumford’s 1953 wooden boat, ahead of the black cod season. He said he relies on the boatyard for haul out and repairs at least twice a year.
“It’s one of the few centralized boatyards where guys can work on their own boats,” Mumford said. Perhaps equally as rare is the hands-on help that Soule brings. Soule said he first learned how to cork from his father about 55 years ago and still uses the same tools that his great grandfather used. To Soule, there’s no substitution for hard work and traditional methods. A custom mallet and chisel are the two necessary tools, but a strong will and high pain tolerance are also essential. Soule’s hands were the first casualty of the job and his back a close second.
“I’ve cut the whole top of my knuckles off with that mallet,” he said. “It’s part of the game. You keep on working.”
Soule concedes he doesn’t do the eight hour corking shifts he once did, but remains dedicated to what he considers the most important safety aspect in securing wooden boats.
“Men’s lives depend on this,” Soule said. “The only thing between them and eternity is the thickness of a plank.”
The boat had been sitting in Sitka, Alaska since 1989 awaiting a buyer, when 82-year-old Astoria fishermen Roger Marshall, became the unlikely owner last fall. Marshall was simply one fisherman who just wasn’t ready to retire. In October, Marshall bought boat and nearly died during a desperate 800-mile journey home.
“Coming down I ran into terrible southeast winds all the way,” Marshall said. “I ran into some bum weather coming out of Candle River and I thought I bought the farm.”
Fortunately, Marshall made it home, after all — he had a promise to keep to his late wife Mary Lou.
“I told her when she was dying I would paint it red,” Marshall said. “It was her favorite color.” Mary Lou died from breast cancer in March. In August, Marshall fulfilled his promise with help from Fred Wiest. The bottom is burgundy with white sides and a bold, red stripe stretching bow to stern.
Over the past 39 years, fisherman Buck Simensen, 55, has seen a lot of storms from the bow of a boat, but few were as vivid as what happened off the coast of Garibaldi in 1978.
“It was a wild storm that caught everyone with their pants down,” Simensen said.
“The wind was blowing 60 mph at three in the morning and a few went down.” Simensen said he doesn’t fear the water, but he respects what can happen.
“It has no conscious,” he said. “It will kill you in a second.”
Simenson spoke about 1924 wooden troller with a sense of pride.
“She’s still floating, they built her good,” he said. He feels his fate likely rests in the boat’s old bones.
“This is the first boat I’ve ever worked on,” he said. “It’s pretty ironic. I’ll probably end up dying on it.”
For the past three years, Matt Miller, 35, fished for salmon and tuna in his 1941 wooden troller, the F/V Sleipner, named after an eight-legged horse in Norse mythology. Miller brought the boat to the Ilwaco Boatyard for what he said would likely be the last time, after recently taking a new job with the City of Long Beach water department. The change came as a relief to Miller, who saw it as an opportunity to be home every night with his kids.
“I’m just getting it cleaned up so that I can sell it,” Miller said. The asking price is $59,000.
While most think about relaxing in their retirement days, that isn’t part of the plan for Mike and Sandra Novak.
“I’m burning up my retirement days to come up with a post-retirement gig,” Mike said, standing next to his new boat at the Ilwaco Boatyard on June 5. Novak bought the boat last year in Warrenton to fish for salmon and albacore, but first needed to fix a cooling issue. Heading into his first season as a salmon fishermen, Novak said his goal is to “break even.”
The boatyard is vital to both the recreational and commercial fishing industries and “the only public boatyard on the Pacific Coast of Washington,” according to port manager Guy Glenn Jr.
“The Port of Chinook and Ilwaco generated more than $27 million in off-ship value in 2016, with nearly 14.5 million pounds of seafood delivered” Glenn said in an Aug. 12 email. “Thousands of recreational fishermen utilize the Ports each summer and add to the local tourism industry.”
“Our boatyards support these industries, including the jobs and families that depend on fishing and tourism in our coastal community,” Glenn said. But the impact isn’t just local — Glenn estimates that about 70 percent of marina customers are from outside Pacific County.
“Nearly half of our marina customers are from Interstate 5 corridor, most of whom are recreational fishermen,” he said.
Revenue generated from the boatyard represents “about 20 percent” of the operations budget for the port. The biggest threat to the marina and boatyard, according to Glenn, is weakness in either or both the recreational and commercial fisheries. Maintaining aging equipment and infrastructure is another constant concern. The Marine Travelift, used to lift boats out of the water and transport them around the yard, is more than 40 years old. Glenn Jr., estimated that a replacement would cost more than $250,000, and securing grant funding is always as struggle as the ports compete with other small ports nationwide.