Boats Of Beauty, Boats Of Joy -- Commune With The Creators At Port Townsend's Wooden Boat Festival - Or Just Sail By Lake Union

It took three long years for Bob Allen to lovingly build the Harriet Spicer. Board by board, fixture by fixture, the computer drafter and amateur woodworker patiently shaped raw lumber into a beautiful 26-foot yawl. Then one day, it was ready. He christened it after his favorite aunt, carefully dropped it into water and set sail for its maiden voyage across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

"When those sails went up and it caught the wind, it was like watching your daughter graduate," Allen said. "I stood there with tears in my eyes. It was a living thing. And I made it."

If boaters in general represent a special subclass of people - dedicated, devoted and religious about their vessels - then wooden boat owners like Allen form the fundamentalist sect. They have a special bond with their craft that invokes emotions one possibly can only compare to feelings for spouses, children or revered grandparents. To them, a wooden boat transcends transportation. It becomes their destination rather than a mode by which to reach one. Wooden boats have soul

Perhaps the best way to capture that almost Zen-like aura of history and romance is to visit Allen and hundreds of other wooden boat aficionados this weekend at the Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend. An estimated 150 wooden boat owners are expected to sail, motor, paddle and row their cherished craft into Point Hudson Marina for the 22nd year of the nationally renownedevent.

Or, for a more local sampling, head down to the nonprofit Center for Wooden Boats at the south end of Seattle's Lake Union. All kinds of wooden craft, from rowboats to small sailboats, can be rented by the hour. The center serves as a classroom and a working museum commemorating the pastime of wooden-boat building.

"Wooden boats have souls," said Dick Wagner, founding director at the center. "They're made by hands and minds, not by machines. They represent a tradition of craftsmanship that goes back 1,000 years."

There's no real way to know how many wooden boats are bobbing around in American waters these days. But it's fair to start counting at 100,000 or more. A poll of readers of the 107,000-circulation Wooden Boat magazine last year found that 89 percent own at least one boat; and 71 percent built a boat themselves.

The Maine-based magazine's readership also provides a snapshot of the average wooden boat owner. Ninety-nine percent are men; The average owner is upper-middle-class, professional, middle-aged, and a college graduate.

That's not surprising. Boating is an expensive pastime. The activity has been compared to stepping fully clothed into a shower and tearing up $20 bills.

But what may be surprising is that among the Rockefeller or Kennedy types, there are plenty of middle-class folks, the kind of people, like Allen, who own regular houses down the street, drive normal cars and go to work for someone else every morning. To build a boat

The egg that became Allen's Harriet Spicer was fertilized in his mind in the early 1980s, when he went shopping for a small sailboat for jaunts around Puget Sound. Allen found the plans for the double-masted Seabird Yawl in a magazine. The design dates to about 1898.

Building a vessel with your own hands ties you to it in ways that people who own mass-manufactured, fiberglass-hulled craft couldn't possibly understand, Allen insists.

"There's more to this boat than the fact that I go out sailing," said Allen, a 54-year-old computer draftsman. "In a way, it feels almost like a Buddhist temple. I feel more like the caretaker of something rather than an owner of an object."

The romance of wooden boats isn't exclusive to sailing. The same feelings hold true for antique powerboats and little wooden rowboats.

But its costs a pretty penny to keep a boat afloat. Wooden boats need constant attention. Owners need to keep a close watch on the condition of the wood, eyeballing the hull for chips and cracks and warps in the wood.

"Let's face it, it's totally impractical to own any kind of boat, and wooden boat people push that to the limit," admits Chas. Dowd, a writer for Boeing who had a wooden rowboat built several years ago. "We don't worry about engines and technology. We worry about the hull. It's so impractical that the people who are involved with it are total dreamers."

But owners say a wooden boat, once properly maintained, is actually easier to care for than fiberglass or aluminum craft.

"Most people think that maintenance must be horrible," said Marty Loken, owner of the Wooden Boat Shop on Seattle's Portage Bay and the Restoration Shop in Magnolia, where people pay top dollar to make antique boats like new. "But when you've got a boat like that you're going to take care of it. The really neat thing about wooden boats is they'll last forever."

Allen agrees, emphasizing that he hasn't paid the Harriet Spicer as much attention as the boat deserves lately. "I think she suffers from spousal neglect," he jokes.

Besides, Allen echoes, doting over a wooden boat is rarely regarded as toil.

"If it's not worth taking care of, it's not worth having," Allen said as he hunkered in the tiny cabin of his boat and patiently pumped a puddle of water from the bilge. "If I had to sell this boat it would be like putting a daughter up for adoption." ------------------------------- IF YOU GO:

The Wooden Boat Festival at Point Hudson Marina in Port Townsend starts today and runs through Sunday. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day. Daily admission is $10 for adults and $5 for kids and seniors. All proceeds benefit the sponsor, the Wooden Boat Foundation, a nonprofit maritime history and education center in Port Townsend.

To get there: Take the Edmonds ferry to Kingston. Follow Highway 104 north across the Hood Canal Bridge and continue to Highway 101. Follow Highway 101 north, then turn right onto Highway 20 and continue into Port Townsend. Park at the park-and-ride next to Safeway and take the free shuttle to the festival.

Or: Ride the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry to Whidbey Island, drive north on Highway 525 to Keystone, turn left on Highway 20 and follow to the Keystone ferry dock. To avoid parking woes in Port Townsend, park your car and walk aboard the ferry. The festival is a short stroll from the dock on the other side.

For more information, call the Wooden Boat Foundation at 360-385-4742, or visit the Web site at

Washington State Ferries sail daily on all the routes listed above. Rates vary from route to route. For rate information and schedules, call 800-843-3779. Web site:

In Seattle, the Center for Wooden Boats, 1010 Valley St., is open for free viewing and boat rentals 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Tuesday, when the entire center is closed.

Boat rental rates vary by the size of the boat and the day of the week (weekend rates are higher). Rowboats range from $12.50 to $30 an hour.

Sailboats range from $15.75 to $37.50 per hour. Sailboat renters have to pass a one-time, $5 exam to prove sufficient sailing skills.

Members ($25 a year) get significant discounts.

For more information, call the Center at 206-382-2628.