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Dick Wagner Receives Lifetime Achievement Award

September 15, 2010

Interviewed by Ross Anderson. Originally published in the Port Townsend 2010 Wooden Boat Festival Program.

I first met Dick Wagner some 40 years ago, when I rented a lovely little daysailer at his Lake Union houseboat – a cozy, floating cottage virtually surrounded by wooden rowboats and sailboats rafted three and four deep. Over the intervening 40 years, Wagner moved his fleet to South Lake Union and became a leading voice in the revival of the wooden boat culture that has become a unique facet of the Pacific Northwest character.

At the 34th Wooden Boat Festival, Dick Wagner was recognized by the Wooden Boat Foundation with a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to community spirit and culture. Recently, the founder of the Center for Wooden Boats retold his story. Here’s an edited version of what he had to say:

Seattle in the ’50s

The Pacific Northwest is a place where wooden boats have been built and maintained with a high standard of craftsmanship and design. I suppose there are several reasons for this. Part of it was the availability of excellent building materials – cedar and spruce and fir. But it was more than that. There was a lot of competition – dozens of small boatshops and yards that were making their livings building small boats for work and for pleasure.

And Puget Sound has always been a place where you didn’t have to be rich to own a fine boat. I grew up on the East Coast, where yachts were very exclusive. Out here, fine boats were available for regular people.

I grew up in New Jersey and came west for a summer job…. And I never went back. There was a can-do sensibility, the spirit of the pioneers, and that’s what attracted me to this place. And that spirit was genetic, passed along from one generation to the next.

When I arrived in Seattle, I lived on a bachelor houseboat on Westlake, next to where I live now. I was working as an architect and spent my spare time wandering the waterfront, standing in the doorways of boatshops, asking questions. When I got my own boat, I started sailing on weekends. When the summer came, I would finish what I was working on and tell my boss, “I’m going sailing. Hope there’s a job when I come back.”

Seattle in the ’50s was a very different city. The shores of Lake Union were full of industry – shops and mills making shingles, barrels, cement and, of course, boats. I loved Fishermen’s Terminal, which was filled with handsome small trollers and gillnetters. I was stepping back 100 years in time.

Along the way, I met and married Colleen. We had been accumulating small boats around the houseboat, and Colleen thought it would make sense to start renting them. The
economy was changing, and people weren’t building wooden boats anymore. Colleen said: “Architecture is fine, but you should do what inspires you.”

Summer of 1968

So I decided to try it for that summer of 1968. We had five boats, rowing and sailing, crammed in around the  houseboat. I assumed our friends and neighbors might rent our boats, but nobody else. We opened on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, and all the boats went out the first day. Newspapers and TV were giving us some attention, and people started knocking on our door, wanting to rent our boats.

People would come to Seattle, and they’d get the idea to rent one of our boats. And they liked what they saw – sort of a living museum. We became sort of a cult. It was obvious we were filling a big vacuum. People were intrigued by old boats and maritime history, but didn’t want to stare at an artifact in a glass case. People wanted to touch and feel the boats.

I worked at the architecture firm that winter. In the spring, I went sailing. And that was that. We collected more boats until space became an issue. They were stacked up everywhere. We had 20 boats, coming and going. We’d raft them up, and on weekends, people wanted to take them out, so we became a second home to a lot of people.

Old-time boatbuilders came down and pitched in and gave us credibility. These were builders who started as teenagers, sweeping the floors at local boatyards until they learned the craft. Now they wanted to be a part of preserving the boats and the culture.

After about 10 years, we decided we should think about becoming a nonprofit. We had a meeting at our place on a Friday in 1976. And about 40 people came. We asked if we should take this concept to a higher level, and they all said yes. And that’s how it started.

We looked for bigger sites, including South Lake Union, the Naval Reserve base.… That shoreline had been neglected. It was a dirty, gritty neighborhood with an old brick warehouse on its last legs, a cement plant and a former asphalt plant on a public waterway, with piles of asphalt and gravel.

A boat show in 1977

We kept meeting and decided to have a big boat show, and we asked the commander if we could use the Naval Reserve Building. He said OK – as long as we did it over Fourth of July weekend. He couldn’t charge rent, but we had to bring our own toilet paper. That was the first Wooden Boat Show, July 1977. We raised a little money and attracted some attention.

In the following years, we developed more programs, workshops and seminars … boat maintenance, bronze casting and forging, lofting and how to use of this new stuff called epoxy.… We were building our constituency. In 1980, we decided to build the new Center for Wooden Boats on Waterway 4, next to the Naval Reserve. That took three years.

One thing leads to another.

The center has grown into a year-round, 5,000-square-foot living museum, with 2,000 members and 25 employees, and a budget that approached $2 million. Then we developed our other site on state parkland at Camano Island.

And the center continues to grow. We will never have all the money we need, but we will continue to expand our program. It’s a style of education that goes far beyond learning about history. People come here to use their hands and their minds together, and they go away feeling better about themselves. We teach sailing to inner-city kids and homeless kids and disabled people – anything to get kids down to the water and onto boats.

It’s all about education. We provide alternative ways to keep people in school, to learn the significance of math and physics and history and culture. Some people will never learn these things from a book, but they might get it from putting a chisel or a sailboat tiller in their hands.

Ross Anderson is a Port Townsend freelance writer and sailor. His recent work is available at his website, Rossink.com.

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