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Sunday, August 27, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Norm Blanchard and the Art of Wooden Boats

IN JULY, Norm Blanchard made his way home to the docks at South Lake Union to visit old friends.

The occasion was Seattle's annual Wooden Boat Festival, when a grand fleet of classic boats ranging from varnished dories to 100-foot schooners converges on South Lake Union for a weekend celebration of the Golden Age of Yachting.

In his Greek fisherman's cap, khaki shirt and pants and boatshoes, the 89-year-old retired boatbuilder blended comfortably in the nautical scene. He strolled slowly along the docks, studying one fine old boat after another. Then he stepped into the mahogany cockpit of the low-slung sloop Nautilus and sat down across from skipper Bill Van Vlack.

Blanchard nodded approvingly as he examined the clean lines and varnished woodwork, crafted at the Blanchard boatyard on Lake Union in 1941. She holds her years well, he said.

For an hour or so, we cruised the lake shore, past the marinas jammed with sleek, white fiberglass yachts, past the old Lake Union Drydock and the houseboats. We drifted briefly near the Freeway Bridge, so the old boatbuilder could glimpse the Eastlake site of the old Blanchard Boat Company, where two generations of Blanchards built nearly 2,000 vessels over half a century.

Back at the south end, Van Vlack cruised the docks, past the stately bows of the assembled fleet. The old boatbuilder's eyes were drawn to the 80-year-old, black-hulled schooner Red Jacket, built by his father in 1920.

"Can we take another pass?" he asked. "A little closer this time?"

As I watched and listened, I yearned to climb through those blue-gray eyes and view this gathering from the perspective of a man who has witnessed nearly a century of Puget Sound boating. I longed to tour these docks through the eyes of a craftsman who built boats for the fabulously wealthy and for the middle class, a man who has watched his craft teeter toward extinction, then stage a remarkable renaissance.

IN A CITY seemingly obsessed with computer software, airplanes and coffee, it is easy to forget that Seattle's roots are sunk deep in its seaport. For nearly 50 years, it was little more than a frontier village perched on the edge of the wilderness. Hemmed in by forests and water, the pioneer economy depended entirely on boats to move people and goods from one place to the next.

Boats were strictly functional. They were Mosquito Fleet steamers or lumber schooners, tugboats or ferries. They brought people and goods from Boston or New York, carried lumber and canned salmon to San Francisco, miners and supplies north to Alaska's gold fields.

Back East, the barons of industry were exhibiting their success in part by building extravagant yachts, racing them up and down the coast and across the Atlantic. Seattle, however, was still too raw, too remote. The Seattle Yacht Club had been organized in 1892, but a decade later it consisted of a shanty perched on a cedar-log float that rocked and rolled on the wind-swept shore of West Seattle.

But Seattle was primed. If New York and Boston had the money, Puget Sound offered a boaters' paradise - a vast inland sea dotted with wilderness islands, channels, bays and coves. It was a matter of time.

By the turn of the century, Puget Sound's sea-borne commerce was translating to wealth. Timber and shipping tycoons, with names such as Stimson, Green, Skinner and Denny, found they had leisure time and money, and were looking for ways to spend both. That meant yachts. The scene was set for a generation of boat builders.

Norm Blanchard's father, Norman J. Sr., migrated to Seattle with his parents in 1888. While still in his teens, he dropped out of school and apprenticed at a boat shop at Leschi on Lake Washington. "He would take the cable car down to the end of the line, and build rowboats," Norm says. "He knew at a very early age what he wanted to do."

In 1905, he teamed up with local boat builders Dean and Lloyd Johnson, setting up shop on the shore of the lower Duwamish River.

By this time, the elder Blanchard was already crewing on local yachts with Ted Geary, who was well on his way to becoming the leading naval architect on the West Coast. Geary helped the new firm get the contract to build a 100-foot yacht for O.O. Denny, son of one of the city's founders.

The same year, 1911, Norman J. and his bride had a son, who inherited not only his father's name, but ultimately his passion.

The outlook was rosey. The fledgling business scored contracts for everything from skiffs and government boats to a 130-foot freighter built for the famous Seattle architect, John Graham.

But the Blanchard-Johnson yard's most famous boat of that period was the Sir Tom, a 38-foot racing sloop designed by Geary. With long overhangs fore and aft, a high mast and no engine, the Sir Tom was built for speed. And with Geary at the helm, and Norman J. and the Johnson brothers on the lines, the Tommy outpaced virtually everything on the Pacific Coast from 1914 to 1929.

Alas, that 130-foot freighter for Graham proved the undoing of the first Blanchard enterprise. The young builders underbid the contract and the yard failed.

After working two years in a local shipyard, Blanchard Sr. set off on his own with a boatyard on Lake Union, at the foot of Wallingford Avenue - the site of the present Seattle Police dock. His first job was building a 62-foot schooner - the Red Jacket.

This was the height of the yachting craze. From Long Island to Bainbridge Island, the barons competed to build the biggest and most elegant yachts. With completion of the Ballard Locks and the Ship Canal, boaters could cruise Lake Washington and Puget Sound in the same day. The Seattle Yacht Club moved to Portage Bay and became a bastion of the local establishment. Yacht races were a local spectator sport, luring thousands of weekenders to the beaches and bluffs.

Each yacht was one-of-a-kind, designed to be bigger or faster or more luxurious than the last. To own a yacht identical to another was unthinkable. Seattle's esteemed architects - Geary, Edmond Monk, and later Ben Seaborn and Bill Garden - designed boats for clients from British Columbia to San Diego. And the builder of choice was, as often as not, Blanchard.

His sailing yachts were typically low-slung with classical lines and extraordinary woodwork. The motorboats had vertical bows, raised foredecks and covered cockpits to keep skippers and guests out of the rain.

The contracts kept coming. There was a 90-footer for lumber tycoon and Seattle Yacht Club Commodore C.D. Stimson. Then there was a 115-footer for California oilman Willits Hole, who traveled to Seattle in his private rail car, his limousine strapped to a flatcar behind him.

There were setbacks. A 1922 fire destroyed the Wallingford shop, but soon Blanchard was back in business across the channel at the north end of Fairview Avenue.

Meanwhile, the shop produced several rum-runners, custom-designed to carry small loads at high speeds. These were the years of Prohibition, and Seattle's proximity to Canada, and the intricate waterways connecting the two, made it an ideal entry point for smuggled booze.

"They were sleek, low to the water and very fast," Norm Blanchard recalls. "I didn't learn about it until years later, but Dad was bootlegging whiskey himself. He never fessed up, because Mother would've divorced him. But she knew. How else did he feed six kids during those years?"

By the mid-1920s, Norm says his dad saw more changes coming. There were fewer orders for mega-yachts and growing interest from less-affluent professionals. So he worked with naval architect Lee Coolidge to design a smaller motor yacht that had a high deck and vertical bow to maximize the cabin space below. Later, the design was picked up by Lake Union Drydock, Blanchard's competitor at the other end of the lake, and dubbed the "Lake Union Dreamboat."

The Dreamboat became a huge hit up and down the West Coast. Between 1925 and 1930, Blanchard produced 25 of them and other yards built dozens more.

These were the years when the younger Blanchard became increasingly involved in his father's trade. As a child, he built model sailboats and sailed them on Lake Union. Later, as a teenager, he constructed an 18-foot flattie, a Geary-designed day-sailer.

He loved the aroma of sawdust and fresh varnish, the camaraderie of his fellow craftsmen. But most of all he loved "lofting" new boats.

Lofting is the process - part geometry, part instinct and art - by which an architect's drawings are enlarged and transferred to the floor of the shop, so the subtle lines of a hull can be built literally on top of the plans. It is an intellectual task that confounds many boatbuilders. But Blanchard reveled in it.

"You'd loft one hull onto the floor, then paint over it so you could loft the next one," he says. "After seven or eight hulls, you'd scrape off the paint and start again."

Subsequent hulls of a design were built from a mold taken from the original. Old molds hung like whalebones from the rafters of the shop. But, for Norm, the joy was creating that first hull.

THE STOCK MARKET crash and Great Depression hit the Blanchards hard. The family lost its home on Capitol Hill to a mortgage foreclosure. Yachts that sold for $50,000 in the 1920s had to be built for a quarter of that, Norm says. His father stayed in business in part by building smaller boats - flatties, catboats and 22-foot sloops called Stars that had become popular on both coasts.

In 1933, father and son were working on a Sunday afternoon when some neighbors dropped by and admired one of their Stars. The visitors asked the price - $750. "Nice boat," one said. "But for that price, I'd want to have a cabin."

"Dammit!" Norm's dad declared. "Let's build a cheap sailboat with a cabin."

The result was the Senior Knockabout - essentially a Star with a small cabin. "One of our all-time best sellers," Norm recalls. From 1933 to 1947, they built and sold 97 of them, ranging from 22 feet to 26 feet. At the same time, they built about 30 Junior Knockabouts, 20-foot day-sailers with no cabin.

"We would start framing a Knockabout on Monday and it would be off the mold by Friday," Norm says.

Yachts they were not, but one didn't have to be a railroad tycoon to own one. "The Blanchards knew how to build boats, both power and sail, that people like them could afford," says Nautilus skipper Bill Van Vlack.

In fact, Blanchard says now, building yachts for the super-rich was never very profitable. Competition was fierce, and there was a powerful temptation to underbid contracts for custom-built designs. The Blanchards made up the difference in part with wartime government contracts, building lifeboats and patrol boats for the military.

After World War II, the boating industry changed profoundly. Thousands of veterans came home yearning to get onto the water, and American industry learned quickly to cater to this burgeoning market.

Companies such as ChrisCraft in Michigan and Owens in Baltimore began making and marketing boats in much the same way Ford did cars. Boats were mass-produced. At first, they were made of wood, then plywood.

And then came something called fiberglass. It was relatively light and strong and could be mass-produced at lower cost than wood.

By 1960 there were an estimated 6 million boats, most of them power boats, buzzing U.S. waters from Puget Sound to Miami Beach. And precious few of them were wood-planked boats such as Blanchard still offered.

"It was really a revolution," says Dick Wagner, founder of Seattle's Center for Wooden Boats. "If somebody wanted a boat in the '20s and '30s, you went down to Blanchard and told him what you wanted. There was little or no advertising. Marketing was not an issue. You began with a small boat, learned how to handle it, and moved up."

ChrisCrafts were marketed like cars - slick ads and showrooms with big windows. The boats themselves mimicked Chryslers and DeSotos of their day, with rocketship bows, streamlined cabins, lots of chrome, even fins.

As yachting became democratized, the Blanchards were gradually shunted aside. The elder Blanchard died in 1954, leaving Norm to watch boat buyers motor past him. The boatyard continued to garner orders for yachts and repairs, but there were no new orders for Dreamboats, Stars or Knockabouts. America yearned for ChrisCrafts.

In the early '60s, Wagner was a rare throwback who believed boats should be made of wood. He dreamed of renting small craft from his Lake Union houseboat, and sought advice from Norm Blanchard.

"I wanted a small, classic boat that could be handled by one person," Wagner recalled. "Norm shook his head and said: `We don't do that anymore.' He was in a state of trauma. He had seen the door close."

Boating continued to gain in popularity, but the showrooms and exhibitions were dominated by fiberglass and chrome. Countless wooden boats were allowed to rot on their mooring lines, or propped in back yards and vacant lots. Among them was the racing boat Sir Tom, scrapped in the mid-Fifties.

"Norm was so thoroughly invested in Puget Sound that he couldn't wrap his mind around building boats for Southern California or Florida," says Scott Rohrer, an avid sailor and Blanchard admirer. "He was too Northwest for his own good."

Blanchard hung on until 1969, when he sold the yard. "It was time to get out," he says. Today the Lake Union site on Fairview is occupied by boathouses for fiberglass mega-yachts.

For 15 years, he and his wife, Eunice, roamed Northwest waters in his wooden cabin cruiser, the Emily J. After Eunice died, he remarried and now lives comfortably in a Redmond retirement community.

Five years ago, he called Stephen Wilen, an old friend and classic boat enthusiast who had once owned a Blanchard yacht. "He'd been thinking about his life and wanted to tell his story," Wilen recalls.

After many long sessions with a tape recorder, they found a publisher for "Knee-Deep in Shavings" (Horsdal & Shubart, Victoria, B.C, $29.95), a nostalgic first-person memoir of the great age of yachting. In its 178 pages, Blanchard tells stories of famous yachts, their owners, builders, skippers and crew.

There is scarce mention of the years following World War II. And no mention at all of fiberglass.

YET NORM BLANCHARD has lived to witness an extraordinary revival of wooden boats and of the arts that created them. Dick Wagner built his tiny fleet of rowboats into an exquisite collection of traditional small craft, including Blanchard Knockabouts, all available for rent at the Center for Wooden Boats at South Lake Union. That institution and others have cultivated and trained a new generation of boat builders in the Blanchard tradition.

Fiberglass boats may be lighter and faster. But boats are not about speed. If the point is to get from A to B, there are a hundred faster ways to do it.

Boats are about character and aesthetics, about bending and shaping wood into beautiful forms that move through air and water with minimal resistance and maximum grace. Fiberglass substitutes science for art, the physics of speed for the aesthetics of wood, wind and weather. The world's best marine architects have yet to design a fiberglass boat to match the dignity, warmth and beauty of what the Blanchards created.

This, of course, is a matter of personal taste. But each year, thousands of visitors flock to shows of classic wooden boats at Lake Union, Port Townsend and Victoria. The city of Seattle has assembled 12 acres of waterfront at South Lake Union, much of which will be developed into a historic seaport, a showplace for traditional yachts and other wood-hulled jewels.

And Blanchard boats have scored their own remarkable comeback. As many as 70 Knockabouts are still afloat in the nooks and crannies of Puget Sound. Blanchard motor yachts, sloops, ketches and schooners, many of them faithfully restored, show up for any gathering of classic yachts.

And, often as not, so does Blanchard himself. Recently, Scott Rohrer lured him down to Lake Union for a ride on the Pirate, last of the "R-boats" built along the lines of the Blanchard-built Sir Tom. Norm stepped aboard, grasped the varnished helm, and steered the old racer into a stiff northerly, tacking up the lake.

Well, how does she compare with the Sir Tom? Rohrer asked.

Blanchard thought for a moment before answering.

"Pretty well," he said. "But I think Tommy was a lot lighter on the helm."

Ross Anderson is a Seattle Times reporter who once owned a Blanchard Junior Knockabout. Benjamin Benschneider is staff photographer for Pacific Northwest magazine. Elliot Rosenstein is a Seattle Times news artist.

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Where the Boats Are

September is the peak season for gatherings of classic wooden boats, all open to the public. Here's a calendar of events.

Next weekend: For the Classic Boat Festival in Victoria, B.C., the inner harbor, at the foot the Empress Hotel, is turned over to scores of classic yachts, both sail and motor. Among the highlights is next Sunday's race outside the harbor. Information: 250-385-7766.

Sept. 8-10: The Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend is the largest such gathering in the state. The festival features scores of boats of all sizes, demonstrations of boatbuilding skills and methods, food and entertainment. Information: 360-385-4742.

Sept. 22-24: The Norm Blanchard Regatta at the Center for Wooden Boats at South Lake Union, named for Seattle's best-known boatbuilder, is expected to draw 50 or more traditional, wood-hulled sailboats from 8 to 45 feet. Norm Blanchard promises to be there. Information: 206-382-2628.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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