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Week 17: All work and no play makes Jack and Jill dull kids

I know a little about education, like you must keep lessons interesting, include recess and lunch or your students will revolt. They are not likely to get all French Revolution and burn the place to the ground before lynching faculty and staff, but they will agitate and do irritating things like hiding the chalk or scatter bags of sawdust in the back of an instructor’s truck.  It’s fun to watch drive down the road, not so fun to be the person seated in the cab drawing unwanted attention. Oh, the perils of teaching at a wooden boat school.

Fortunately, someone has this pedagogical trick already mastered. About the time we are getting restless, they suggest a field trip. And, surprise, surprise, no permission slips required!  Gee, we must have finally achieved that rare strata known as ‘maturity’. (To skip ahead, just a little, they only sent three “responsible adults” to supervise 60 of us on a ferry and in two workshops, so we must be considered mature despite our disheveled appearances and tendency to pick up every tool in sight.)

Ok, on the road.

Last Thursday the entire student body had an opportunity to load aboard a ferry to Whidbey Island and then meander through a Viking boat yard and the very modern antithesis of same: The Skagit Valley College Northwest Center of Excellence for Marine Manufacturing and Technology. Two disparate worlds, and yet all in our own backyard with both very much concerned with things that float.

IMG_1201Oh, before diving into our road trip adventure, a bit of news closer to home. On Monday afternoon, Jedi master Jodi Boyle pushed his team’s skiff into the Pacific. We managed to leather the oars and push the craft downhill from the Hammond building before Mother Nature dropped more liquid sunshine on our parade. I do have to say, the combination of red and yellow cedar makes for a very eye-catching craft, as well as the fact she rows well and showed no sign of taking on water. Only one more to go before the entire fleet is afloat.

On the road again…

On Thursday we had the unique opportunity to visit a true anachronist. That is, someone who looks back to the past with a longing and willingness to replicate that which went before us. This is not the same as a “Luddite,” people who would fight technology to preserve their employment (i.e., buggy whip manufacturers who sought to burn Henry Ford’s new business venture to the ground). No, anachronists are not fighting innovation, they are simply looking to revive elements of history lost in our race to seamless connectivity.

A case in point—Jay Smith—who lives a short ferry ride and drive away on Whidbey Island. Residing on a pastoral plot just south of Anacortes, Jay is in the midst of handcrafting two Viking craft taken from plans that emerged over 1,000—yes, one thousand—years ago in his native Norway. This takes a huge leap of imagination, or a very broad mind’s eye, particularly when you realize the boats he is working on measure 37 and 56 feet. Add to that beams that will span more than 10 feet! These are not something you see rolling down the highway on any given day of the week.


As this is a small world here in the great “Northwet,” we had a chance to visit Jay at his shop and walk through the two construction halls. A woodworkers dream! He is milling planks out of freshly hewn oak and carving beams longer than my two trucks parked back-to-back. In many cases using exactly the same techniques ancient Norwegians would have employed those many, many centuries ago.

Awe inspiring.

However, this is not a one-man operation. Jay has found an iron smith who pounds out authentic nails and roves, has recruited teams to help tote huge beams, and a property owner who allows him to harvest crooks from old oak trees appropriate for naturally strong heels, ribs, stem and stern. Just like raising a child, it takes a village to build a traditional Viking boat. And they are all here in our backyard!

IMG_1224I would be remiss if I said everything Jay has done was accomplished via a collection of axes and broadswords. His shop features a large array of antique hand tools from the 1800s and a bit of electronic contribution (band saws and joiners) that likely wandered out of the factory about one century ago. There’s a plethora of imagination happening there and a skilled craftsperson who realizes you may need that finger for tomorrow’s labor.

On next stop was visiting the Northwest Center of Excellence for Marine Manufacturing and Technology. Located in the Port of Anacortes, this was an impressive setup featuring the very modern side of our chosen profession: composites, engines and systems. Want to know how the bowels of what we would-be shipwrights are crafting? This is the place for you. Makes me wonder if I can be a student for another year? It’s always good to know what makes that diesel run and the electricity flow through appropriate channels.

And so we come to the end of week 17 with a different perspective and a small break from classroom and shops here in our own corner of the country. Jay and his projects are a real inspiration for any craftsperson. I just wonder if the neighbors will complain when I set up a shelter to cover framing for a 50 foot Viking ship in my backyard.




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Eric Anderson is a retired Air Force officer who can be found puttering
in his shop when not scribbling on the keyboard.  A new resident of
Port Townsend, he is an avid sailor, struggling carpenter, and would-be writer.